IHE Policy Live 2020
Over three days in October IHE brought together nearly 300 participants and almost 40 speakers to deliver an online event which was to all intents and purposes our 2020 annual conference – but not as we know it, Jim! As we curated the event, we were acutely aware of the challenges facing the sector, and the uncertainties that our speakers and members were currently navigating. Even at the best of times education provokes impassioned and heartfelt debate – and rightly so.
As we enter a new phase of restrictions across the UK, we heard debates that were rooted in the past, present and future needs of students, institutions and wider society. We listened to commentary and ideas that found a careful balance between realism and ambition, quality and innovation, and urgent economic need against the aspirations of students – young, old, professional, part-time and international.
There were big themes and bold ideas that emerged: holding the OfS’s feet to the fire and making sure it regulates for all students and all providers; the need to build and expand specialism and the unique contribution it makes to driving economic growth and social innovation; that there is so much – and so much more – to play for in relation to the international education market; and that Boris, Gavin and Michelle are delivering a major programme of reform, and the IHE membership knows how to make a success of it.
We also learned that we have a new and thoughtful friend in the International Education Champion.
Regulation and governance
Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Universities, restated the Government’s commitment to quality, reducing bureaucracy, and creating a genuinely flexible and lifelong learning system. Our members have been doing this for decades, and doing it well, so it is great to see the Government are now catching up and celebrating this approach, and no doubt the regulator will not be far behind. The forthcoming OfS consultation on quality and standards was discussed by Nicola Dandridge, and there was a clear invitation to engage and make our voice heard – including on whether the registration process should be adapted for new providers without a track record of delivering higher education.
Discussing the data that drives so much of the regulator’s work, we heard calls for greater use of contextual information, and that the OfS should be more supportive in releasing its data for sector wide improvement.
In relation to governance, we heard that the distinction between strategic oversight and operational delivery is less clear than before, and that new principles for more dynamic, proactive and externally focused modes of governance may be here to stay beyond the immediate challenges posed by the pandemic.
Specialising in SMEs
Members such as Norland College, Point Blank Music School, and Central Film School were profiled and their success as specialists reminded us that small can definitely be beautiful – as well as effective, high quality, high growth, innovative, internationally attractive, capable of great student outcomes.
Throughout the conference we heard concerns that government departments and sector bodies need to focus to an even greater extent on the unfulfilled potential of SME providers, in relation to trade deals, regional growth, and the development of new higher technical qualifications.
Following a detailed deep-dive into micro-credentials on day two, the question must be asked – does the Government really think the Russell Group is going to deliver their vision for modular and flexible learning that is geared toward industry and employee need? We listened to a dynamic discussion around stackable, additive, employer-led, and locally-designed qualifications from the Open University, Bath Spa’s Sue Rigby (who is leading QAA’s review of the FHEQ), and participants across our membership, with a clear vision for ‘partnership’ working mapped out.
Tim Harris (from IHE members QA Higher Education) spent a good part of the debate up in the clouds… AI-driven cloud platforms, that is, and their potential to remould the distinction between ‘training’ and ‘education’, and employer versus learner need.
We were also delighted to hear directly from the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education on the importance of our membership continuing to engage with with them on the development and delivery of their skills agenda, supported by the more student loan system recently announced by the Government.
An international outlook
Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s new International Education Champion, set out a positive and inclusive route map for his work and emphasised the importance of Transnational Education. Our guest speaker from IDP also provided a data-backed assessment that suggests the international market is holding up well in the face of the global public health challenge, albeit at lower levels than previously projected. The issue of how SME providers can tap into localised and subject-specific demand within international markets was also raised.
Countries like Canada that offer the ‘whole package’ for international students, as well as marketing it effectively and enthusiastically, were continually referred to, and suggested that while it is important that IHE continues to work with Government on the detail of implementing recent reforms such as the graduate route, we shouldn’t lose sight of planning for an increasingly competitive future too – it was agreed there was no room for complacency. An optimistic discussion chaired by the British Council’s Maddalaine Ansell suggested international graduate employability as a prime candidate for where further collaboration between the education sector, government and business could pay dividends.
Continuing the theme of international comparisons, the last session included a contribution from the OECD, as well as two expert veterans of different systems and time zones in Anthony McClaran and Alex Usher, which gave our conference a chance to put the full three days in context – the UK is global in its reach and reputation, but we can still learn a lot from others, not least from the Australian regulatory journey through Tertiary Education in recent years. What the Australian regulator TEQSA eventually found was that it could best balance the interests of students and taxpayers with a proportionate bureaucratic burden for providers by doing something really quite radical: talking with, and listening to, the organisations it is tasked with regulating. Now there is a lesson I’m sure we can all endorse.
We would like to thank all our speakers and participants for their expert contributions, and please do get in touch to continue the discussion.
Click here to access recordings and slides from all nine sessions.
- On 16th November 2020