Over the last two years the higher education sector has been engaged in a mass participation Action Research experiment; unfortunately it was an experiment with too many input variables and confounding factors, and a shift in the way we measured the outputs.
Disruption to secondary education and examinations meant many students entered higher education lacking confidence, core knowledge or with rusty study and assessment skills. The switch to online delivery encouraged, or perhaps compelled, teachers to review how and what they were teaching, and how it could be assessed.
In some instances, this has led to more accessible and inclusive curricula and authentic assessment, with students developing their independent study skills and digital capabilities. Early indications suggest that awarding gaps closed over the past two years but it is not clear what factors have led to this impact. Some students have appreciated the flexibility that online learning provided, including many of the voices from the margins: students with disabilities or caring responsibilities, those with part-time work and commuter students. Other students and stakeholders questioned the value of higher education and lamented the loss of the university experience. So, how do we meet the diverse needs of students including those who are craving the in-person social experiences they signed up for whilst leveraging lessons learnt from the pivot to online teaching?
The reductive argument about online vs in person masks the real challenges of digital access and participation, and how new methods of mixed mode teaching and assessment might support groups of students who are often marginalised from the debate.”
UPP Foundation, Student Futures Commission
As leadership teams struggle to articulate their positions on providing a flexible, engaging, sustainable and accessible higher education experience, wider policy items are also on the agenda, many of which are in tension with one another. How do we widen access to higher education whilst ensuring all graduates reach benchmarked employability outcomes, and meet the changing needs of employers? How do we address grade inflation when most students expect, and employers demand, a first or upper second-class degree? How do we ensure freedom of speech whilst ensuring the campus is a safe space for all students and staff? How do we improve retention whilst maintaining standards? How do we assure the quality of provision whilst creating a culture for enhancement and change? How do we respond to demands for agile, micro-credentialed provision, whilst providing a cohesive and progressive curriculum?
The Office for Students (OFS) is clear about their expectations:
"[The OFS] will ensure that universities and colleges deliver excellent courses, offering real value for money and giving graduates the best chance of fulfilling careers that contribute to our shared prosperity. We will also support university and colleges to address the urgent issues that affect today’s students, by fostering good mental health and wellbeing for students and preventing harassment and sexual misconduct."
The resolution of many of these tensions is dependent on excellent teachers providing transformative learning experiences. Strategic leadership of education requires a deep understanding of teaching and learning, as well as institutional policies and practices, and an appreciation of how they are contextualised by discipline or faculty, along with knowledge of the political and regulatory landscape. Addressing these challenges requires a range of attributes, from data and policy analysis, creativity, innovation, identifying and supporting professional development needs, and providing the appropriate culture for a flourishing academic community of staff and students - whilst simultaneously keeping up with the annual cycle of the administrative machine.
...knowledge and experience are no longer the primary commodity. Instead, what is far more valuable is to have the ability to learn and to apply those learnings into new and unique scenarios. It's no longer about what you know, it's about how you can learn and adapt.”
Advance HE has been engaging with the sector through a tweetchat and roundtables to understand what the priorities and challenges are for those responsible for strategic leadership and change within the education offer. A short survey has been built on these initial consultations and invites you to reflect on your development priorities: what is the required balance between developing leadership skills, understanding the sector landscape challenges, and the opportunity to share challenges and solutions?
Please complete the short survey if you are interested in furthering our understanding of the leadership that your learning and teaching community needs and help us develop effective leaders in education. We welcome your views, opinions, and ideas on several areas including your priorities and preferences on content and scope, mode of delivery and duration.