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  • Blog post: Consumer protection, student expectations and quality
  • Date:  30 June 2020
  • Today we publish more information for higher education institutions on consumer protection, student expectations and quality.

    We thought this would be helpful in the context of preparations for academic year 2020/21. Of course, no one is quite sure yet what the next academic year will look like, but we understand that most, if not all, providers across the UK as a whole are seeking to achieve some form of blended learning – with some provision being delivered online, combined with some face-to-face learning.

    Consumer law is an issue that has been concerning institutions, particularly given the short timescale in which provision had to be put online in 2019/20.

    It is clear that institutions cannot take a blanket approach to delivery next year – therefore information will need to be tailored by institution, course, and potentially for different groups of students; for example, those who may struggle to access information.

    The key thing is to ensure that students, and potential students, have access to as much information as possible, as soon as it is available. That means giving them information on what the first term might look like, even though decisions may not have been made yet for the remainder of the academic year. This will enable them to decide what is best for them: to study in 2020/21, or potentially to defer. Students’ unions and student representatives also need to have information on the evolving situation as soon as possible, so they can plan how they can support student voice and the student experience in the changing context.

    Students also need to be clear that, should they commit to studying in 2020/21, they will be able to achieve the academic objectives of their chosen programme, even if it is delivered in a different way to previous years.

    One thing we do know is that the situation is likely to evolve constantly, and the beginning of the academic year may look very different to the end. Institutions have done an excellent job in responding to the early challenges of the pandemic in 2019/20, and will need to adapt their practices on an ongoing basis as further information on public health requirements becomes clear.

    Student expectations will also evolve as time goes on: providers will need to manage these expectations throughout the year, including through consulting with the student body before making any significant changes, providing students with regular information, and updates as soon as decisions are made that will impact their studies.

    Dr Cliona O’Neill is Head of Student Experience at HEFCW

  • Blog post: How can we help? Coronavirus and victims of violence and abuse
  • Date:  22 June 2020
  • Coronavirus has impacted on each and everyone, and on every community in Wales. The pandemic has shown us that life is not business as usual and, for many, their usual challenges continue to exist and are magnified.

    For victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence, this can mean their home or community is not a place of safety. In the past victims might have been able to reach out to others and find some support or somewhere to go where they felt safe, including their university or HE provider, their family and friends, or through hobbies or activities outside the home.

    Help from higher education

    Universities in Wales are aware of, and have been responding to, the challenges experienced by people facing violence, harassment and abuse, including honour based abuse. We have worked closely with them, and with the Welsh Government, to produce guidance and share information on supporting staff and students, including through sharing case studies that illustrate how universities in Wales are supporting their communities. Our work in Wales is informed by three UK evidence-based Changing the Culture reports, by the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 and through our ongoing engagement with the Welsh Government’s violence against women team.

    With work and social lives now shifting online, we understand that some people may be suffering from coercive control or harassment through online platforms. The move from face-to-face interactions to social distancing and online engagement may increase loneliness, isolation and mental health issues. University staff and students, as peers and colleagues, should be mindful where they see changes in attitudes and/or behaviour that are sustained or exacerbated by the pandemic. Universities should promote available support services. University staff and students can also support victims and survivors of sexual and domestic abuse. The bystander toolkit (and Cymraeg) by Welsh Women’s Aid provides key advice and information for anyone able to help.

    What support is available?

    Across Wales, a wide range of specialist services are available to help people suffering harassment, domestic abuse and violence under the stay-at-home rules. Welsh Government’s Live Fear Free Helpline is a free 24/7 service for all victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence. The service also provides support to family, friends and colleagues. Support is available by phone (Tel: 0808 8010 800), by text (Tel: 078600 77333), via live chat and also silently if victims are unable to speak. Most importantly if immediate help is required, police will respond to ‘silent’ emergency ‘999’ calls, when ‘55’ is pressed in response to the operator.

    This month, the Minister for Education and Minster for Health and Social Services launched the Young Person’s Mental Health Toolkit which highlights support through the hideout, Welsh Women’s Aid and ManKind amongst others. Living and learning fear-free, safe and supported in our homes and communities must be a basic expectation for staff, students and communities. Higher education in Wales is committed to securing this now and in the future, including as we emerge from lockdown.

    The higher education community strongly supports Welsh Government campaigns such as ‘Home shouldn’t be a place of fear’ via social media, promoting institutional campaigns, setting out guidance and signposting information. We know that the ongoing pandemic has increased all types of violence. It only becomes more important that we safeguard the most vulnerable in our communities.

    Savanna Jones, Widening Access and Inclusion Manager

  • Blog post: What’s in a network?
  • Date:  14 May 2020
  • Can you imagine if the coronavirus had happened before we had the technology that we have now?

    HEFCW has been without an office since February, due to Storm Dennis. For the first month we also used space kindly loaned to us by the University of South Wales and Cardiff Metropolitan University. Because we are on eduroam, the international education roaming service, it meant that we were able to continue our work seamlessly.

    It also means we have been doing a lot of homeworking, even before COVID-19. Jisc, which provides UK universities and colleges with shared digital infrastructure and services, as well as supporting us, has been essential in ensuring that we can continue to develop policy, liaise with Welsh Government, and pay institutions and staff.

    Everyone is aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to significant challenges for higher education. Institutions are having to work at pace to meet the needs of students and keep the wheels turning from a distance. Staff are spending large parts of the day on multiple video conferencing apps in order to support continued collaboration.

    Likewise, university governing body meetings are being held online for the first time, as are our Council meetings. It is crucial that effective governance is maintained in these challenging times, and it’s difficult to think how else this might have been achieved while social distancing!

    Throughout all this we have been continuing to fund Jisc to support the sector. All institutions managed to move all their work online incredibly quickly – a testament to the staff involved, given the speed and scale of the task. However, given how quickly this has been achieved, practices will vary within and between institutions.

    We are supporting Jisc to work with higher education providers to find and embed best practice, and to reduce the variability in the student experience, which will be particularly important if it becomes necessary for the 2020/21 academic year to be started online.

    Jisc has worked with publishers to enable electronic access to digital publications and textbooks, which is helping to protect the student experience. Cybersecurity remains a high priority, with more phishing attacks directed at staff than previously.

    Jisc is also continuing to maintain the resilience and capacity of the superfast Janet Network in the current circumstances, to ensure the delivery of teaching, and secure the exchange of data.

    In addition, some ‘business as usual’ continues – for example the Jisc/HEFCW collaboration on higher education analytics labs that will provide an overview of performance against the HEFCW national measures and information on student flows; and the work on Learning Analytics Cymru that uses technology to analyse data for the benefit of students. We encourage institutions to continue to talk to Jisc to see how they can most gain from the services on offer, and adapt to the current circumstances. For those wanting more information, the Jisc coronavirus support page and community of practice can be found at www.jisc.ac.uk/coronavirus.

    So what next? We are not yet clear about what will happen in September – will campuses re-open at the start of term, will learning be online or blended for some time? What are the implications for new students, and will we find some students are digitally excluded from this way of learning?

    It is clear that the pandemic has changed the perspectives of many organisations regarding working remotely. It’s likely that this will change the face of higher education in the longer term, as well as the short term.

    Is this a good thing? Do we want to go back to how we were? What will (and should!) future higher education look like? This throws up a huge range of questions, and we will continue to fund Jisc to try and identify answers, in partnership with other higher education sector bodies. As every cloud should have a silver lining, this may include how the sector’s response to the pandemic could enhance the future learning experience in higher education.

    What is clear is that there will be global changes in higher education, so it is essential for higher education providers in Wales and the UK to remain engaged with these changes, and the technologies that will enable them to occur.

    Dr Cliona O’Neill, Head of Student Experience

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