Continuing the conversation between Emma Hardy MP and Professor Jane Harrington, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Greenwich 

The Covid-19 crisis should be an opportunity to re-examine how we deliver education, and, as was discussed recently ‘in conversation with Emma Hardy MP’ at the University Alliance Summit, a chance to use our connections with industry to play our part in the nation’s recovery from Covid-19.

Several weeks have passed since that conversation took place and quite a few things have changed. So we have decided to catch-up with Emma again and follow up on areas of particular interest for the University Alliance’s community.

JH: Thank you so much, Emma, for agreeing to do this with me again. University Alliance’s mission has always been driven by supporting the students, communities and industries we serve, and as we have seen over recent months through the response to the pandemic, this role has never been more important. Our conversation at the Summit really caught our imagination, and we would be interested in hearing more from you how we can use this period of disruption to think differently about our education system and how it serves its learners and communities?

 EH: The pandemic has already triggered a recession. It is expected that its scale will be something we have not seen for a number of decades, with up to 3.5 million job losses expected and almost no industry left untouched.

This crisis has accelerated changes in our workplaces, causing dramatic shifts in the nature and availability of work, speeding up automation even more. Faced with this stark prospect universities will have a key role to play in delivering the reskilling agenda successfully. We will also need to increase part-time, flexible, and distance learning opportunities.

To fulfil this role, we need to radically re-examine our education system, making it truly accessible for all learners and ensuring that it is providing students with the knowledge and skills they want and need.

Second chances will be hugely important. We should look again at the financial support available for part-time learners, the sustainability of the current funding model, and developing working interventions addressing the barriers of returning to education.

Driving regional regeneration will require a re-examination of the communities and places that our diverse range of educational institutions serve, identifying gaps, as well as, excess provision. We would especially have to ensure that part-time and mature learners have more flexible, local options, and that their experience is not hindered by long commuting times.

The solution here may be to develop deep, meaningful, strategic partnerships, joining-up approaches to provision locally and regionally. I know that Alliance universities can already leverage some of the existing collaboration with schools, further education partners, and local businesses to help address gaps that will exist, especially as we look to the skills needed post Covid-19. But more work will be needed.

 JH: And what about for current students? Our universities sit on the very nexus of Higher Education, industry and the public sector. We’re pleased that a recent survey found the public share our view that universities can be essential to the national economic, social and cultural recovery effort in the months and years ahead, especially if we are bold in our ambitions in re-imagining the education system we need. How can we use these local connections and partnerships we have with businesses to support current and future generations of students through this crisis, and beyond?

EH: As current students face a career cliff-edge with looming unemployment after graduation, universities could be using these links to build bridges into employment; encouraging businesses to take on quality internships and help graduates move on and progress with their careers and not drop into unemployment.

Such an approach would provide benefits for individuals, business and the economy. Now is the time for solutions; I think the sector would also benefit from a joined up education and employment strategy from government.

JH: Absolutely. In fact we are supportive of Universities UK’s recent report which proposes that paid internships should be offered to the graduate class of 2020 to support their employment prospects and to help businesses get back on their feet following the Covid-19 lockdown.

 JH: Universities have moved swiftly to transform their offer and deliver virtual academic and pastoral support for current learners, but as the summer gets underway, many of us are acutely aware that more work needs to be done. How do you think universities should be supporting prospective, current, and recently graduated students? For example, at Greenwich we are extending mental health support programmes and access to offer holders and those yet to join the university, and providing virtual mentorship.

EH: Many students will be experiencing increased pressures, and we must be mindful that most learners will have had almost 6 months away from the formal schooling structure and support system. As the wider financial picture for the sector forces universities to face stark choices, universities should commit to safeguarding the essential student support services for current and future students, and where possible extending them further, the way you have done.

JH: Yes, absolutely. We have also been doing lots for our existing students. Greenwich University spent the first few weeks of lockdown sourcing and shipping hundreds of laptops and internet connection ‘dongles’ to students across the country to overcome a ‘digital divide’ for those learners who did not have access to IT equipment. But the digital divide affects students in different and often unexpected ways; it’s one thing to have the right equipment, but another to have the internet connection, the space, and the appropriate environment to undertake the learning.

Recognising that different student groups, will have different experiences, we have just partnered with former Education Secretary, Rt Hon Justine Greening, to protect opportunities and boost social mobility, including by developing an Opportunity Action Plan to level up Britain in the wake of Covid-19.

EH: Yes, the rapid move universities made to online learning in the face of the Covid-19 lockdown has been impressive. Yet for all its success, it’s also exposed and in some cases exacerbated the inequalities that exists within our society.

I’m really glad that you have mentioned social mobility. If universities are to play a vital role in the recovery they must not leave any students behind.

The global pandemic is causing significant financial difficulties for many students, who are more likely to be working in those industries most affected by job losses, such as hospitality. Students are also not eligible for government support schemes, and there are fears that this crisis will result in some learners unable to afford to return to study. If the government is committed to their levelling up agenda they must urgently address student financial hardship.

Covid-19 may not have caused these issues, but this crisis affords us an opportunity to proactively close these gaps across the system. But first we do need to have a good understanding of what those gaps are and why they are there. And whilst individual actions by institutions are admirable, there are too many inconsistencies in the interventions within the sector, and we need government action to offer support where gaps exist. Students must be made eligible for the Government’s emergency Covid-19 financial support, or wider benefits system. Without a safety net in place, too many students may fall through the gaps, despite the efforts from individual institutions.

 Emma, thank you so much for your thoughts and insights to the work the University Alliance can be doing to support their communities and the nation through this crisis, twice! It has been a pleasure. I look forward to engaging with you on many different topics in the future.

EH: Many thanks Jane, I look forward to it too.

Further reading