A festival from afar: My key takeaways from "The Festival of Higher Education"

04 Aug 2020
By Jenny Shaw, Student Experience Director at Unite Students
Towards the start of July I attended the Festival of Higher Education from the comfort of my own home, a thought provoking event which included presentations from two former HE ministers, the incoming president of the Russell Group, university leaders from Australia and the US, authors, futurists and a panel of education journalists.

I was battling a heavy cold at the time so I spent most of the two days wrapped in a blanket with a Lemsip at my side. In a pre-lockdown world I would have been a no-show, but with Zoom I could be a full participant. I even asked questions, which is honestly so much easier when you don’t have to speak awkwardly into a microphone while several hundred heads swivel around to try and find you in the crowd. Would I rather have been there in person? Yes, for sure. But in practice I would have missed out completely. 

Covid19 takes away: precious lives, livelihoods, businesses, education, time with family, the chance to say hello and goodbye. And yet, without in any way cancelling out this loss, it quietly gives too. Reconnections with old friends, new hobbies, time with loved ones, accessibility, greater reach, new opportunities.

What we lose and what we gain was, for me, a major theme of the Festival. Topics touched on by several of the speakers included:

Universities face existential threats, and yet universities are absolutely crucial to over-coming the crisis and rebuilding our economy.

Covid19 has made a significant financial hole in university finances, and yet the rapid move to online learning may break down geographical restrictions and open up new opportunities.

Researchers have had to change the way they work and curtail travel, and yet international collaboration has never been more important – and it turns out that travel wasn’t as crucial as we thought.

Inevitably there was a focus on government policy and shifting interests around higher education, and even since the event there have been further announcements. Government support for “high quality” research and courses is likely to favour the higher tariff institutions. Yet Nancy Rothwell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester and incoming Chair of the Russell Group, spoke about the rise of the consortium approach to research, with a whole range of institutions contributing specialist skills and people. She was also clear that creative subjects and behavioural science are just as important as STEM subjects in tackling the big issues of the day, because it is essential we understand human behaviour, and communicate well.

Moreover, she maintained that place will be more important than ever in a globally connected world, a theme that was echoed by almost all of the speakers. Place will be important to economic recovery, and this is reflected in the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. Both Rachel Wolf, former education and innovation advisor to the prime minister, and Glyn Davis, former vice-chancellor of Melbourne University, made a strong case that the confidence of local communities is essential to universities’ survival. Meanwhile, the more recent government announcement on higher level technical qualifications provides opportunities and the prospect of funding to institutions that perhaps have fared less well in the recent bailout, but who are expert in upskilling local people and businesses.

So what will Covid-19 give back to student accommodation? Throughout the Festival of HE, I heard a renewed appreciation of the importance of place as being core to the human condition. Fundamentally, we are social beings rooted in place, and the big issues of the day – climate change, an ageing population, global health and AI – require us to leverage our humanity and community as much as our scientific knowledge. For those of us working in student accommodation, this felt like a renewed call to build rich and supportive communities of learners within our buildings, and to look more widely at the local area around us.

The next year or so are going to be a challenge, but they should also bring opportunities if we are ready for them. Through the pandemic we have learned how to operate at a distance, but as both Nancy Rothwell and Glyn Davis pointed out, this gives us additional opportunities to connect and be effective rather than being a substitute for what we did before. For accommodation, the flexibility and agility we have had to show will stand us in good stead to meet the needs of learners with new or changed accommodation needs – perhaps a growth in postgraduate study as the economy readjusts, and the unknown requirements of a much increased cohort of higher technical learners. 

Stronger relationships may also be a legacy of Covid-19, and Ian Goldin inspired the Festival audience by talking about how nations and sectors came together after the Second World War to give us a welfare state that benefitted everyone. Accommodation teams and PBSA providers are going to play a key role in supporting universities to bring their students back to campus. We may start to see new forms of mutually supportive partnership working as universities reassess space in terms of service, culture and ownership. Again, these may help universities to meet emerging needs in terms of patterns of learning engagement, new forms of learning, support for trainee and new keyworkers, and the long pipeline for research talent.

There is also an opportunity to support all universities as they continue to dig in to the civic agenda and win the support of local people. Some of this is about removing negative impacts, and we are certainly keen to continue our own work with local partnerships tackling antisocial behaviour that both involves and affects students. On the positive side, students can be a real force for good in a local community, but only if those opportunities are encouraged and supported.

The world is changing, but we can change with it. Within the losses of Covid-19 there are also learnings and opportunities, and the Festival of Higher Education provided much needed inspiration for the journey ahead.

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To find out more about the Festival of Higher Education speakers, visit: https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/event/fifth-festival-of-higher-education/

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Jenny Shaw is Student Experience Director for Unite Students. She has previously worked for three UK universities and as a consultant to national HE sector organisations prior to her time at Unite Students.