Reps' Monthly Higher Education Update
This is a monthly update for our Reps on what’s going on in the higher education (HE) sector. In this edition, we look back at what happened in the world of higher education in January 2020.
Conservatives return to office
In last year’s election, the first December election since 1923, the Conservative Party won an extraordinary majority of seats in the House of Commons. There are now three hundred and sixty-five seats held by Conservatives – one seat for each day of the year! The Conservatives are expected to remain in office for at least another five years, and with such a strong majority, they should be able to comfortably implement new policy.
What does this mean for universities? In our special election-themed edition, we reviewed the Conservative Party’s manifesto and its sections on academic freedom and the Augar Review. Since the Party’s election success, some academics have been interested to find out more about the Party’s plans to challenge “low-quality” courses and “low-quality” education providers. In other words, how will the Office for Students regulate higher education over the 2020s? Will it become an “Ofsted for universities,” as some academics say?
Students at Coventry will have noticed that some of their lecturers have again taken industrial action against Coventry University this month.
Strikes took place at Coventry University on the 28th and 29th of the month. 75% of UCU members at Coventry University voted to strike. In a statement, local members of the University and College Union (UCU) told students that they were reluctant to strike, but they felt that the University’s “Senior Management are driving down the quality of [students’] education […] due to the increasingly arbitrary targets, shortening deadlines and unmanageable workloads […]”.
Nationally, the UCU maintains that its members, who work for universities around the country, are under far too much pressure to carry out work and achieve high targets for insufficient pay. But universities disagree. Spokespeople for Coventry University have defended the system, arguing that performance-related pay was a fair way of paying staff and that Coventry’s lecturers enjoy a better reward package than staff working for other universities.
The University of Sheffield made headlines this month when a new anti-racism initiative was announced. Students at the University of Sheffield were invited to become Race Equality Champions, trained to “lead healthy conversations” in halls and on campus and to look out for micro-aggressions. The Champions would be able to lead optional training to student groups if it were requested.
Sheffield’s idea received a strong negative backlash from media commentators and politicians. Ewan Somerville, a contributor for Sheffield’s branch of The Tab, described it as “an Orwellian attempt to silence my free speech” in an article for the Daily Telegraph; and Tom Slater, Deputy Editor of Spiked Online, wrote in an article for the Spectator that the role of a Race Equality Champion was one for someone with “an incredibly thin skin and a passion for policing other people’s conversations”. But students at Sheffield, such as Olive Enokido-Lineham, disagree. Enokido-Lineham commended the plan in an article for Forge, the student newspaper at the University. “The student-led approach instead seeks to stimulate more honest conversations about racism. It nurtures a safe environment, particularly for those who have experienced racism, to share their thoughts.”
The end of history
The University of Sunderland will shut down its departments of history, politics and modern languages in favour of a curriculum that is explicitly focused on helping its students enter employment after their studies.
Too few students registered to study courses of history, politics, public health and modern languages, leading to Sunderland’s Board of Governors’ decision to do away with those departments altogether. “The governors agreed that all subjects and programmes in the University should be educationally and financially sustainable, align with a particular employment sector, fit within the University’s overall strategy and be of a consistently high-quality,” read a statement from the University.
Some academics from other universities have expressed their sadness that students at Sunderland will have no opportunities to learn about history and politics or to learn a new language. But in the Governors’ view, their decision to shut down some departments and invest in others, such as engineering, business and science, is a reflection of what students want.