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Three months on – taking stock of what we’ve heard from members

Like any organisation responding to the pandemic, over the last few months we’ve been actively gathering intelligence from the sector to inform our response and planning.

We’re uniquely positioned to garner insight from a wide range of sources: our account managers are in constant dialogue with members, our community events and JiscMail drive critical conversations, we run focus groups and surveys in key areas, we are heavily engaged with key stakeholders and sector bodies as we collectively navigate these times, and of course – like you – we keep a watching brief on the wider sector news.

Three months on, we’ve taken stock of the key areas of concern we’ve been hearing from members. We found that member feedback centred on eight key areas: sustainability; 2. Online delivery; 3. Cyber security; 4. Accessibility; 5. Well-being; 6. Student experience; 7. Collaboration, advice and guidance; 8. Looking to the future.

8 key themes from members responding to Covid 19

As you undertake your own reviews and planning, we thought it would be useful to give you a high-level view what we’ve heard so far around these themes – we’re certainly finding it useful as we plan our own responses


We’re in the second phase of Gartner’s ‘respond, recover, renew’ crisis response model

Gartner’s three Rs phased model for responding to a crisis situation may now be quite familiar: respond, recover, renew.  If we use this as a lens, it’s clear that after several months of emergency response and establishing baseline business continuity our sectors are now moving into the second recover phase of response.

Gartner's respond, recover, renew

Financial sustainability is the main concern

Not surprisingly, financial sustainability amidst extreme uncertainty is the dominant and ongoing theme. For HE the loss in international students as the biggest factor at play here, but of course deferrals will also play a role; a 17% increase would mean £763m in lost tuition fees.

FE’s finances are hit by lost revenue from areas such as adult learning, international students, catering, and commercial contracts, and stands to lose £150m in the next AY and 13% of the FE sector has a “significant threat” to its solvency.

We know many institutions are currently taking steps to reduce expenditure through budget cutting, recruitment freezes and pay freezes or even redundancies.

Online delivery; initially the worry was being operational, but now it’s about good practice

We’re hearing positive messages from members that the pandemic has accelerated online provision and pace of change for the better, but there is a growing concern that some of the sub-optimal practice from the early response stages may become ingrained. Organisations are now starting to think longer-term and consider how to develop best practice, online pedagogy and suitable timetables.

Maintaining the pace of change is a key challenge. Staff don’t want to come back to what it was before COVID-19. But there are concerns over workload and how this will play out with a new cohort of students in September – who may not have the skills, experience or equipment to work effectively online.

Other concerns include replicating key face to face touch-points online such as open days and enrolment/inductions, quality online assessments and the use of technology to deliver practical elements of education and research e.g. experiments or hands-on vocational subjects.

Accessibility is an issue for both staff and students

And of course, as part of all this, accessibility is a key concern – access to resources and tools, to devices, and to fit-for-purpose and affordable connectivity.

Free access to online content has been welcomed by members, as has the availability of free software tools.  But there is a concern over the over-reliance of ‘free’ resources, and that institutions will struggle when paywalls are introduced.

We’ve long known that the digital divide means that certain learners are more disadvantaged than others. But the major shift to at home working and learning has starkly highlighted the extent to which home access to appropriate devices is an issue for both staff and students across the HE and FE sectors. In early April, it was becoming very clear the extent to which not all staff and students had equal access to equipment. We heard of many families sharing single devices for work and home-schooling, and there have been long waits for equipment.

In addition, students and staff often don’t have the access to the connectivity needed to support good quality online learning, teaching and working.  Many struggle with poor quality broadband and wifi provision. We have heard from members that in FE a good number of their students rely on mobile phones, and often on a pay-as-you-go mobile phone contract, and we know organisations are exploring options for resolving this issue, for example by providing students with MiFi connections.

Cyber security concerns are a growing trend

Since early April we’ve heard growing concerns around increased phishing and malware  attacks that attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities of the current situation.

Information security and data protection are also key topics, for example the security levels of home internet connections, ensuring secure authentication, handling consent for recording online sessions, and the safe storage of student data at home.

Concerns over well-being are increasing

The initial shock was around how to keep in touch with staff and students, as time has progressed it’s become much more obvious of its persistent impact on people’s wellbeing and mental health as many struggle to balance work and home responsibilities.  We know that students were looking for supportive messages and flexibility from HE in April. And in FE, students in particular have missed human interaction and reassurance, but this is complicated by concerns over safeguarding, given the age of many students. How suitable are 1-2-1 in-home sessions?

Many institutions have actively worked to put support mechanisms in place for their staff. But there are signs pressure on staff is growing, with pace of change taking its toll, with staff with little or no experience of online teaching having to rapidly learn and adapt to new technologies and design blended learning courses for the next term. We’re also hearing that female academics are particularly affected as they’re on average more likely to take on the responsibilities of additional childcare and home-schooling.

From April the discussion swiftly shifted to the student experience

As provision moved online, worries grew that students were disengaged not just from online learning, but university and college life in general. We’ve seen growing discontent around the quality of online teaching, and the fact that the cost of now-empty accommodation was still being covered by students, which has led to several quite public examples of students demanding refunds e.g. a UK parliament petition with almost 350,000 signatures calling for a refund and a call by the NUS to allow students to repeat the year at no extra cost.

Many students who worked found themselves without jobs, and apprenticeship and career prospects have often dried up – and students are reporting that they’ve lost roles and placements. In FE, students training in the hospitality or beauty sectors are particularly affected. In certain cases, international students found themselves in particularly vulnerable and isolated positions, unable to return to their home countries because of travel restrictions

Collaboration and the sharing of best practice

A major positive has been how much the sectors have pulled together. In responding to the pandemic, institutions have actively reached out to share experiences and collaborate to overcome the major challenges. Certainly we’ve seen an exponential spike in usage of JiscMail, and surge in attendance of Jisc community and training events, where best practice is shared and then fed into advice and guidance we’re providing to all members.

Improved communication was highlighted as one of the key benefits in a recent webinar with staff from FE. They felt more informed as a result of regular updates from their leadership teams, had more opportunities to engage with dispersed teams, to effectively collaborate, to share good practice and to elicit feedback from team members. Leaders also highlighted effective online communication helped to democratise the conversation – allowing more people to “have their say”.

Looking to future

After the initial focus on continuity, in May attention turned to the medium-term future, and how to handle the ‘return’ to campus given the levels of uncertainty.   Conversations are turning to the scalability and quality of online delivery, and innovative uses of physical campus space while social distancing is maintained. Interestingly, right now we’re not hearing a great deal of specifics around member plans for the autumn term  – perhaps because that planning is very much live and specific to local requirements.  There are of course, notable exceptions – Durham University announcing a “radical restructure” of its offer, the news that Cambridge University will hold all lectures online, and the University of Bolton stating that campus will re-open in September.

At the same time, the sector is looking to the longer term strategic implications of the pandemic, and how we move from recovery to renewal.  This is the focus of the Learning and Teaching Reimagined initiative, where we’re partnering with  Universities UKAdvance HE and Emerge Education to bring together the best of HE sector expertise to learn from recent rapid change, and also the focus of our work with AoC to shape the digital future of further education and skills, bringing together college leaders, teachers, students, sector bodies and edtech experts to research, collate and share the best examples.

As these programmes progress, we’ll continue to share the key intelligence and lessons learned via this blog.  Please stay posted!

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