CEO Blog: London Higher in unprecedented times

Q: How frequently do we see/hear the words ‘unprecedented times’ being used at the moment?  A:  Just about all the time.  This is true for everyone as we go about our daily lives – let alone about the sectors we work in and around, as we try and adjust to the global coronavirus pandemic.

The situation continues to evolve on a day by day basis. New decisions and announcements are being made all the time and this is set to continue.  To a greater or lesser extent the vast majority of people are anxious about the future.

Higher education could, potentially, be one of the worst hit sectors. Yet it is also clear in London and elsewhere that HEIs are intrinsic to effort to bring the pandemic under control now. Our institutions will also be key to longer term solutions and recovery.

International student recruitment is set to dip markedly for the 2020-21 academic year, commercial income will also be hit – for instance as summer lettings do not take place, and other income such as that contributed by charities for research will also be significantly reduced. It is not yet clear either how the home first degree entry for 2020-21 will shape up and across the sector universities have not only moved rapidly in online delivery for students, but are also adapting their approaches to admissions. Progress is being made all the time but the level of concern has led even some of the best known and largest universities – including the University of Oxford – to announce major cost-cutting exercises, with staff and staff-related costs included.

There is a distinctive dimension to the situation in London – which has of course been the epicentre of the pandemic in London.  One major reason being that about a third of all UK international students study in the capital.  Before Easter, London Higher prepared a position paper which gives more details about the London HE picture amid growing concern about financial stability of what might be a large number of institutions, and whilst seeking support from Government also offered some solutions.  At the time of writing this blog the HE sector awaits a decision from national Government about a possible support package.  We all hope this will help HEIs at least manage the immediate impact of the crisis and enable sustainable longer terms plans to be developed.  Whilst inevitably there will be strings attached to any support package it is vital for the economy and society in London, and the rest of the UK, that the sector cannot just survive but thrive.

If we needed any reminder about how essential London’s HEIs are to London and to Londoners then a quick glance at the many and varied contributions bring made in the fight against COVID-19 will serve as a reminder. Starting with the numbers of students (medics, nurses and midwives, other healthcare professions) now serving on the front line, alongside staff released who have been released from academic contracts to do the same on a full-time basis.

Some of this is now well known from national media coverage, such as UCL and their partnership with F1 to develop and supply ventilators and similar equipment, and Middlesex University supplying visors and other personal protective equipment. The impact goes far, far beyond the highest profile actions, though, and London Higher has tried to capture many of these on our new hub, and on our twitter page.  Our hub also contains a lot of useful information (for students, staff and members of the public).  Please take a look.  We will continue to update it regularly. Later in the year we look forward to reflecting back on (and indeed celebrating) the contributions made by London’s HEIs and the many and varied positive impacts of these.

We are also looking forward to the moment we can say that ‘London is reopening’.  And that time will come. London Higher is already working with our members and also colleagues in London & Partners, the GLA and London First amongst others about promoting our world renowned HE cluster. This cluster is and will remain a regional, national and international asset and we will do whatever we can to support it.

Needless to say, there is a great deal more than can – and is going to be – said, on many fronts, positive and less so.  New developments, challenges and opportunities will emerge constantly.  London Higher will monitor closely, respond quickly and help to develop effective solutions to assist recovery.  It is also vital to foster collaboration and support our colleagues in HEIs, and stakeholder organisations,  to facilitate conversation and the sharing of good practice, and to share experiences and lessons learned, as well as look at ways of moving forward and foster new ideas.  More on all of this in future blogs and our website.