This year’s GuildHE annual conference was held in the stunning Embassy Theatre at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama on the 11th and 12th of November.
Both days were bustling with hard-hitting, thought-provoking and pertinent higher education activity. Following a welcome from GuildHE chair Joy Carter and Host Gavin Henderson, then Andy Westwood set the scene with the theme ‘Higher Education post-2015’. Sue Littlemore chaired the first panel – which featured Tom Bennett, Director of ResearchED; Prof. Andrew Brewerton, Principal and Chief Executive, Plymouth College of Art; Ann Mroz, Editor, TES – on the theme of Teaching, School and Higher Education. They discussed the relationships between schools and higher education, highlighting higher education institutions’ innovative attempts to foster ‘a transgenerational continuum’ across pre-HE and HE, including establishing or sponsoring Free Schools and teacher CPD.
The first of afternoon’s three speakers, Madeleine Atkins, Chief Executive of HEFCE delivered an insightful talk on the organisation’s current position and priorities leading into the next election within the context of the wider sector.
This was then followed by the Shadow Minister for Universities, Science and Skills, the Rt Hon Liam Byrne MP. In his talk, Liam largely built upon the foundations he set out out in the GuildHE sponsored pamphlet, Robbins Rebooted, concerning his vision for technical, ‘earn while you learn’ degrees. These degrees would provide alternative education pathways for the ‘forgotten fifty percent’ whilst taking steps to fill the skills gap by producing work-ready graduates.
Liam Byrne suggested that the current funding system was unsustainable, and funding was a theme later explored by NUS President, Toni Pearce, in a rousing after-dinner speech (a full transcript of which can be found here) that called on the sector to take the lead in demonstrating the public value that higher education provides. By integrating this with a student engagement agenda, Toni suggested the sector may be able to galvanise the learning experiences that Higher Education offers, and allow students to use those experiences for social good.
The agenda for Day Two was just as stimulating as the first. Following GuildHE’s AGM in the morning, Helen Fairfoul, Chief Executive of UCEA, provided an update on recent Pension Scheme Developments.
This was followed by two panels. The first, chaired by Ruth Farwell, Vice-Chancellor of Bucks New University and featuring Megan Dunn, Vice-President Higher Education, NUS; Laura Jackson, President, York St John SU; Miki Vyse, President, Leeds Trinity SU, picked up where Toni left off the preceding evening, discussing student engagement and the development of students as partners. Megan Dunn opined that student engagement was vital in the cultivation of ‘transformative learning spaces’ whilst Miki and Laura discussed the highs and lows of engaging students within smaller institutions.
The discussion of transformative learning spaces, as well as the importance of undertaking a research project as part of the student experience, allowed for a smooth transition into the final panel of the conference focused on Research, Innovation and Impact. This panel was chaired by Prof. Chris Gaskell, Principal, Royal Agricultural University, and featured Prof. Cara Aitchison, Vice-Chancellor, University of St Mark and St John; Dr Andy Dixon, Director of Research, University of Chichester and Director, CREST; Dani Salvadori, Director of Innovation, Business and External Relations at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London and Paul Manners, Director, National Co-ordination Center for Public Engagement. In the run up to the publication of REF2014 outcomes, there was a rich discussion about the potential for specialist institutions to excel in their specialist niches and translating research for wider public benefit.