Why this is not the time to dwell on HE student numbers

The impact of coronavirus will go beyond the well-reported hit higher education is likely to take, writes David Hughes
30th March 2020, 5:26pm


Why this is not the time to dwell on HE student numbers

The Impact Of Coronavirus Will Be Wider Than The Much Reporter Impact On He, Writes David Hughes, Of The Association Of Colleges

So much has changed in the past few weeks and, of course, so much has not. At the very time we need to be thinking about education and training as a whole system, in the interests of every young person and adult, we have the national media obsessed about number caps on higher education institutions.

It's not that we shouldn't be talking about HE number caps; it's just that we also need to be thinking about the education, training and futures of the other half of the population as well.

I'll not dwell on the HE number cap issue, other than to say that I am hoping that every institution involved will work together to reach a solution. We need to move quickly and collectively to what in reality, will be the least-bad way forward. The answer will require several trade-offs: between the needs of existing students and future students; between those applying this year but also those wanting to study in subsequent years; between individual student wants and institutional viability; between stronger universities and weaker; between the ideal and the pragmatic. A good test of leadership across the sector.

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The effect on the economy  

But as I've said, we must not allow the focus on higher education to mask the other vitally important challenges we face. With 500,000 applications for universal credit in nine days, five times more than normal, we know that the virus is already having a profound impact on large numbers of people. That impact will increase, however long the crisis lasts. Hundreds of thousands of people will lose their jobs and thousands of businesses will go to the wall. Many thousands more businesses will have to go through enormous transformations if they are to have any hope of surviving beyond this year.

There is an equally tough challenge concerning the young people in schools and colleges who are planning to move on this summer. It's tough enough for those with a higher or further education place still likely, because rather than facing the exams and assessments they were expecting, they are now learning online, with no end-point exam or assessment.

But for those hoping to move into work or on to an apprenticeship, the economic impact of the virus might scupper those plans. That leaves them with an online offering next term with no compelling stimulus to continue and no focus beyond. The risks of drop-out and drop-off from engagement are enormous, and it is likely that the achievement divide between disadvantaged and others will widen.

So, I'm not overly concerned about whether every young person will be able to secure a place at their first-choice university because there are enough places for everyone across the whole sector. It is likely that compromises from university leaders will see us through that challenge.

No, I'm worried about the young people not ready for higher education or striving towards an entirely different path, about the adults made redundant over the coming weeks and months and about the businesses that need to survive. They all face an uncertain future in an economy and labour market, the likes of which we probably have not seen in our lifetimes.

The coronavirus crisis: five areas to focus on

There are five areas I think colleges and the DfE need to focus on; two for next term, three for the autumn.

The first is to get creative about how we support all the young people expecting to move on this summer. We owe it to every single one of them to help them find a way through, to be able to progress whether it be on to higher or further learning, into good jobs or apprenticeships. This next term will be so difficult in terms of motivation, engagement and inclusion. More than ever before, we need colleges and schools to share their ideas, what works and how they are meeting this challenge. We should celebrate good practice and share, share, share.

The second area of focus is how we mobilise colleges and providers to offer new opportunities next term for adults already displaced by the crisis. College staff working from home can develop new online courses as well as provide student support to extend existing courses to more students. Lockdown might offer a captive audience of people willing to try something different. Could online learning start to compete with Homes Under the Hammer, replace the box-sets and take off for adults who will probably need new skills in a tight labour market? It's worth trying.

The next three areas are about preparing now for the autumn through developing a new youth training offer, a new economic renaissance offer for adults and an innovation fund for employers. All linked, of course, but let's start with young people - those aged 16 and 17 who will struggle in the labour market. How about a new guarantee for them that includes purposeful training, an apprenticeship or job? We know that there is a long-term scarring from unemployment at this age from previous recessions. We have the chance now to minimise the numbers affected in that way, by planning a new programme from the autumn.

For adults made redundant, and nobody yet knows how big that group will be, we need a similar offer. Training, support, advice and help to get into work with new skills can all be ready for September as the economy starts to rally with the right funding behind it. But this fourth area is linked to my fifth. It's likely that every business will be changed by this crisis - the switch to home-working as the norm will stimulate every employer to think about how to redesign their working practices. They will all be needing to find efficiencies to make up for losses. In that period, businesses will need advice and support to adopt new technology, innovate and change processes. We can prepare now to have the capacity to offer that advice, along with the relevant skills for the workforce and for people seeking work.

It's unlikely that the national media will get as excited about these five areas as they do about university admissions, but we all need to make up for that. We have the chance over the next four or five months to develop a wholly new set of offers for the autumn that can be a modest silver lining in the dark clouds of this crisis. We can also use these months to support hundreds of thousands of young people and adults to get something positive out of lockdown and social isolation. The prime minister is right that there is such a thing as society - colleges are at the heart of it and are ready to step up, with others, in collaboration to help shape it for the better.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges


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