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2020: A Year in Review

16 Dec 2020 | Advance HE Alison Johns, Advance HE Chief Executive, looks back at 2020 and highlights just some of our work during this most challenging of years.

2020 has been an unforgettable year. It has brought more challenges to higher education than we could have ever imagined – and the sector has responded superbly. As a direct result of Covid-19, we have taken up the challenge too by providing an extensive suite of resources and support, delivering as much as possible online and by maintaining the best flexible service to meet the needs of our members during this most uncertain of years.

Among the challenges of 2020 there is also hope, action and a determined will within our sector to continue teaching excellence, tackle race and gender inequality and ensure leadership and good governance moves the sector forward into 2021. 

This Year in Review highlights just a fraction of the publications, webinars, resources and support Advance HE has produced and curated for our members. I hope you find it a valuable overview of your Advance HE membership.

I wish you a safe, healthy and prosperous 2021.



We began 2020 by welcoming our 80th international member institution.

Our inaugural Women in HE conference brought more than 150 women together to discuss how to accelerate the pace of change to improve the treatment and inclusion of women within the sector.

We continued the 20th anniversary celebrations of the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme into 2020 by sharing a series of blogs from previous years’ winners on the impact of the award.

We published a compendium of case studies representing a range of creative responses to the challenges of embedding and extending employability in the student experience. 


I spoke at the Australian Academy of Science Catalysing Gender Equality 2020 conference and at the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Athena SWAN pilot scheme award ceremony during a visit to Australia and reflected on the progress made in gender equality across the globe.

We celebrated our longest-running bespoke programme, the Academic Leaders Programme (ALP), a collaboration between Newcastle and Durham universities and Advance HE. Now in its 15th iteration, almost 300 academic leaders have benefitted from attending since 2006.

Women’s Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi MBE delighted delegates on Aurora with a keynote speech on leadership.

Our jointly hosted with HEPI House of Commons seminar ‘Challenging the Status Quo - who governs the governors?’ provoked the audience on the matter of good governance in higher education.


The Irish Universities Association appointed us to deliver the new IUA Executive Leaders Programme for aspiring and current executive leaders across its seven member universities.

Religion and Belief in UK Higher Education, the first report of its kind, was published to examine how student outcomes may differ according to religion and belief.

We welcomed The Future of Athena SWAN, the report of the Independent Review Steering Group. Following this report we set out our transformation plan and announced the Athena SWAN governance committee.

We became the first organisation in the sector to be deemed ‘ready’ to assess apprentices taking part in the Level 7 Academic Professional Apprenticeship.


After universities closed their doors to face-to-face teaching we rapidly developed a suite of Covid-19 response resources and support for high quality teaching and learning in the new normal. This included learning from Xia Li of Nankai University in China and her colleagues and students who experienced the pandemic’s effects earlier than other parts of the world and had to respond accordingly by moving teaching online.  

We switched our face-to-face programmes, conferences and events including online teaching skills masterclasses and online certificate in teaching and learning to virtual delivery via Zoom. As we developed our delivery, the Teaching and Learning Conference in July was our first delivered using a virtual conference platform.

We were delighted to learn that a teaching and learning programme we delivered at Walailak University in Thailand had resulted in massive student retention improvements.

We initiated a research collaboration with the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education (IOHE) to explore ‘Insights into HE Leadership Skills in Mexico’


We continued to develop and deliver thought leadership and practical ways to support colleagues in the ‘new normal’, launching our Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project.  in which more than 150 member institutions participated from around the world. We presented some high level findings of the project at a Times Higher summit later in the year, and invited delegates to a share their views on the impact of Covid-19 on their campuses.

Ten staff members at QUT in Australia were awarded Associate Fellow (Indigenous) following a pilot programme underpinned by a new module on Indigenous Perspectives in Learning and Teaching.


We launched Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations’, an Advance HE project funded by Scottish Funding Council and led by an expert group of EDI practitioners, academics, tertiary education staff and students. This led to the signing of a declaration by institutions in Scotland “Racism exists on our campuses and in our society. Call it what it is and reject it in all its forms. We stand united against racism”. The project has a series of outputs including the first  ‘Critical Conversations on Racism’ webinar, where Khadija Mohammed and Barbara Becnel shared their experiences of racism and their thoughts on how we can embed system change in our society. We followed this with Progressing race equality: Action, Allyship and Anti-Racism, supported by a blog about allyship from the SFC. Watch all the webinars in this project

We published practical guidance for colleges and universities in Scotland on a taking a strategic approach to equality impact assessment/equality analysis and developing genuinely inclusive strategy and policy. This guidance was developed with Scottish colleges and universities, with funding from the Scottish Funding Council.

Continuing the series of guidance notes to support academics with the practical application of the Frameworks for enhancing student success we published Transforming Assessment and Embedding Employability.

We welcomed the Swiss Education Group and Swiss Education Group Professional as an Advance HE Access Member


Our Student Academic Experience Survey Report 2020 in partnership with HEPI was launched with an exclusive preview webinar for members giving them a chance to understand the findings from the report authors, as well as view a panel debate. This year’s survey was particularly interesting as half the field work straddled lockdown, so analysis was undertaken for both pre- and post-lockdown.

We also released an Ethnicity and the Postgraduate Student Experience Report that looked at data from the 2019 Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES) and the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES) to understand how the postgraduate experience differs for students of different ethnic backgrounds, to develop the scarce body of evidence in this area.

Our work as hosts of the Disabled Students’ Commission (DSC), the independent and strategic group funded by the Office for Students (OfS), resulted in ‘Three months to make a difference…’ a booklet highlighting seven key areas that present challenges for disabled students and recommendations as to how institutions and policy makers can urgently address them. We also published guidance for disabled students applying to university in the light of Covid-19.

We launched Phase 2 of the Race Equality Charter review to ensure that the Charter remains ‘fit-for purpose’. As part of the review, we announced scoping sessions for small and specialist institutions to support the development of a REC process that is fit for their needs. The charter review work has been complemented with the launch of our evidence-based Good Practice Database for those working to advance gender and race equality in higher education through Athena Swan and the REC.

We continued to pivot our delivery to support our international work which included moving a national Teaching Excellence Programme for the British Council in Ukraine online and launching our Active Digital Design programme.


Over summer we launched our 20-21 portfolio, refreshed to ensure it meets our members’ and the sectors’ evolving needs. This includes an increasing focus on digital delivery of more of our products and online pedagogy to support effective and engaging teaching.

In addition to this, we also launched a series of mini brochures covering Gender Equality, Race Equality, Fostering Inclusion, Developing Leadership, Teaching and Learning for Student Success and Strategic Leadership. We also launched our refreshed governance brochure and a brochure singularly focused on the Governor Development Programme.

Our Connect Benefit Series focus in August was on assessment, initiated by the publication of On Your Marks: Learner-focused Feedback Practices and Feedback Literacy, which includes 18 papers by more than 40 authors.

We announced 56 new National Teaching Fellows and 15 winning teams for the Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence.


Developing sustainable resilience in HE was our September Connect Benefit Series which we explored through an introductory paper and a series of thought pieces and webinars including: Inclusion and resilience, ‘From ‘being’ to ‘resilience’, ‘The art of the resilient teaching team’ and ‘Resilient organisations and higher education’.

As part of our Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project we published ‘Equality implications for ‘re-opening’ HE campuses in the COVID era – perspectives and discussion from our expert panel of academics and practitioners in the sector, as well as Exceptional Transitions into higher education, a short and practical summary of the key points to address for successful induction. We also shared ideas from around the sector on adapting practice in the ‘new normal’ including these two blogs on Assessment & Feedback from colleagues at Royal Holloway University and De Montfort University, Leicester.

We began to provide support for the Women in Leadership (WiL) programme as part of Universities South Africa’s broader Higher Educational Leadership and Management (HELM) programme.

The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in Ireland welcomed the commitment to gender equality as Ireland achieved its highest ever success rate for Athena SWAN with 15 new Bronze award holders.

We built on previous work to evaluate teaching quality, leadership development and governance structures to support the Pak-UK Education Gateway initiative by providing strategic Information, Advice & Guidance support to the Higher Education Commission in Pakistan as it develops its plans for the National Academy of Higher Education.


October’s Connect Benefit Series focus was Diversity and Inclusion – the critical governance role featuring the first ever report into the diversity of HE governors in the UK. An invite-only Chatham House session explored how Chairs can support their boards – through the assurance role – to effectively challenge EDI progress in their institutions.

A growing number of institutions in the Middle East have started or completed teaching and learning development programmes and now have growing numbers of teaching Fellows.

We invited representatives from Students’ Unions to vlog about why Black History Month is so important and highlighted within the context of higher education.

Our annual Equality in Higher Education Staff and Student Statistical Reports launched with analysis on students’ social background from the report author Dr Natasha Codiroli Mcmaster and a blog in Wonkhe by Gary Loke on the awarding gap for Black students.

October saw us deliver our first virtual awards ceremony as we celebrated the 2020 National Teaching Fellows and Collaborative Awards for Teaching Excellence. Nominations for 2021 are now open and we are delivering a series of virtual roadshows to support applications.

We completed an initial series of webinars for the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialised Education (MHSSE) in Uzbekistan providing strategic advice and guidance on priority areas to support its ambitious sector transformation programme. This work is supported by the British Council which also involves an Advance HE institutional-level change programme. 


This month, our Connect Benefit Series theme was exceptional student retention and explored how to support and retain the Covid-19 generation through a series of blogs, resources and webinars.

The Advance HE Collaborative Development Fund: New Challenges, New Solutions launched with project funding available to explore Developing flexible ecosystems, Board diversity practice and Reshaping higher education and research institute strategy and culture.

We published our Postgraduate Research Experience Survey 2020 which reported slightly higher satisfaction during the Covid-19 lockdown (82%) than those who responded to the survey before lockdown (77%). We also published the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey 2020 this month.

Two new guides are published to help interpret the Professional Standards Framework for those applying for Fellowship in an Aotearoa New Zealand cultural context and Australia.

We began delivery of a leadership programme for administrative staff in India as part of Phase 3 of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) which aims to drive internationalisation in the UK and India HE sectors.


This month, we launched a renewed focus to tackle structural race inequality with activities, discussions, tools and resources to support our members in understanding and addressing structural race inequalities in all aspects of higher education. Professor Paul Miller joins us as a strategic adviser for race, culture and leadership to initiate this work. Further outputs in 2021 will include a podcast series and a structural race equality guidebook.

We delivered three Leadership Development Programmes to staff at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

We completed a year-long British Council-funded project to provide both strategic advice and practical training to assist the Ministry of Education in Myanmar with its plans to establish a National Institute for Higher Education Development and build capacity of leadership and management teams in universities.

December also saw student engagement as our Connect Benefit Series theme with the launch of #52etc, a new toolkit to support teaching practice and enhance student engagement.



Please note that the Advance HE office will close at 17:00 (GMT) on 23 December 2020 and re-open at 9:00 (GMT) on 4 January 2021.


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