By Fiona Holroyde
As the last wave of new university students across the country begin their courses this week, universities face an unprecedented number of challenges at the start of this academic year.
With Covid an ongoing concern, managing a safe teaching environment while ensuring students can enjoy the full university experience is still proving difficult to navigate, and has attracted criticism from students at some universities for keeping measures in place such as online lectures.
Another challenge is mental health. The pandemic has increased the need for mental health support across the population, but student mental health issues in university pre-date Covid and some argue that support for student mental health should be a higher priority.
However, many of the issues facing UK universities in 2021 are not just a battle for more resources. Of course, we should be proud of higher education offered in the United Kingdom. It is recognised as a world class sector and our academic institutions continue to demonstrate their research excellence, not least during the pandemic.
Being a leader in a global sector like higher education attracts brickbats as well as garlands. It means that the spotlight is well and truly turned on British academia, enabling politicians with an agenda to criticise universities for their ‘internationalism’, particularly relationships or connections to China.
Earlier last week saw the Conservative backbench MP group ‘China Research Group’ recommend that all sponsorships made by China-linked firms and academic partnerships with Chinese institutions be reported to the Department for Education. In addition, the backbench group recommended the UK undertake a review of current research partnerships and funding arrangements with China and Chinese firms.
How this might work in practice begs many questions but it clearly demonstrates how the political context in which universities build their networks has changed radically in recent times. Cast your minds less than a decade back to the former Cameron Conservative administration and remember how it so positively encouraged closer Sino-British ties.
Another issue set to run relates to freedom of speech on academic campuses and what this means. With the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill progressing in the House of Commons there will be further vigorous debate about what freedom of speech really involves and how it should be interpreted in an academic context.
My final point is how important it is to acknowledge that international students are so much more than a significant revenue stream for many institutions. They are individuals, each with their aspirations for the future and desire to maximise the benefits of a UK higher education. We should celebrate that our universities are so diverse and plugged in globally, and continue to attract the best students from around the world.