Universities struggle to ‘keep all the balls in the air’

This post was originally published on the Media FHE News site.

As domestic students make their final decisions about which universities to go to, universities are endeavouring to reassure them that campus life would be back to ‘near normal’ by September. Meanwhile international student numbers are looking shaky, while higher education is being sucked into debates around the Black Lives Matter campaign. Tristram Hooley, Chief Research Officer of the Institute of Student Employers explains why he doesn’t envy Vice Chancellors right now.

At this time of year university Vice Chancellors often find themselves in the position of a neurotic host, twenty minutes before the start of a party. Everything is ready, but what if nobody comes? In general, this anxiety proves to be unfounded (although there can sometimes be a bit of unseemly begging and pleading for people to come during clearing). Even the low ranked universities usually see enough, or nearly enough, students starting to walk through the door as September approaches.

But what about this year? As the Guardian points out, sixth form students are moving towards crunch time and many remain undecided. The picture is even worse with respect to overseas students, with some forecasting 14,000 fewer students from East Asia alone. The Times decided to stick the boot in when universities are down, by arguing that British higher education has become too reliant on Chinese students and Chinese investment. To make things even more difficult the Office for Students have instructed universities to be honest about how the coronavirus will impact on the student experience. Meanwhile three quarters of UK universities have heard that they have fallen in the QS international university rankings.

So, VCs are now tasked with selling their institutions with a heady combination of desperation and honesty. This task hasn’t been helped by the media’s insistence in discussing whether universities are even open. The BBC’s coverage of this question is helpful, broadly setting out the fact that most universities will be delivering some sort of blended offer in September. But no one points out that most universities are continuing to work throughout the crisis, with teaching and research ongoing.

Just as VCs were starting to get a handle on student numbers, with polling from the Higher Education Policy Institute suggesting enrolments might not be as bad as feared, people started to ask difficult questions about what universities were even for. A University Alliance survey reports that the general public want universities to focus on applied subjects to support the Covid-19 recovery. And then, as VCs were trying to remember their old defences for liberal education, the Black Lives Matters movement blew up and they had to explain why, although freedom of speech was wonderful, the statue of the old racist must stay on campus even when senior black staff disagree. They also had to explain why only a fifth of them agreed that the curriculum should be decolonised as part of an effort to tackle the attainment gap between white and black and minority ethnic students. However, they did take some decisive action on social media only to hear critics argue that you can’t end structural racism with a tweet and a black square posted on the university’s Instagram account. 

There are plenty of people who criticise VCs for inflated pay packets, particularly in a time of crisis. While I wouldn’t mind the £450,000 pay packet, this week was one that reminded me of exactly how glad I am that I didn’t pursue a job in university senior management. It isn’t always easy trying to balance the roles of upbeat salesperson, strategic manager, intellectual heavyweight and social reformer. Occasionally you get a week where you have to try and keep all of the balls in the air. Sadly, this was a week where a lot of them came crashing down.


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