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In recent years, education policy has been shaped by a nostalgia-driven debate about the ‘good old days’ of English schooling. Former education secretary Michael Gove’s tough and traditional vision for the curriculum from 2010 to 2014 implemented rigorous spelling and grammar tests in primary schools, replaced American authors on the GCSE syllabus with Austen and Dickens, and hoped pupils would memorise lists of English Kings and Queens. Similarly, throughout her time as education secretary from 2016 to 2018, Justine Greening was pulled into Theresa May’s plan to turn England into a “Great Meritocracy” by lifting Labour’s ban on grammar schools.

The current public health crisis has forced the education sector to radically reconsider its approach and priorities in the context of the 21st century digital world. The Department of Education launched its online school ‘Oak National Academy’ with 2 million lessons made freely accessible for parents and pupils. Universities have suspended face-to-face teaching and adopted new digital tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. 

In the Union debate ‘What Does Coronavirus Mean for Education?’, the majority of speakers welcomed this shift towards online learning. Economist Alex Tabarrok’s data-driven conclusion was, quite simply, that “online education is cheaper and better”. 

During the debate, the non academic achievements and skills students hope to gain at university were not explored. Questions about the quality of academic discussions conducted online, or the experience of remote learning for disadvantaged and disabled students, were almost completely ignored. The portrayal of university life seemed miserable and formulaic. 

In our Zoom interview after the debate, former Conservative MP Justine Greening's understanding of university was business-focused. In the context of the pandemic and an increasingly “brutal” jobs market, she argued that the employability of students must be the top priority for universities: “We know from studies that if you have problems with the early years of your career, it’s like having a problem with the early years of your education and the danger of it cascades through. You and your generation deserve a plan for how you can continue to develop and make a success of your life.” 

Rather than solely valuing universities in terms of their academic reputation and research, Greening suggested that the “great universities of the future will probably involve employers a lot more in their degree courses” to ensure their students have a strong non-academic skill set.

“While universities have a strong strategy on academic capital, they need to have a game plan on capability capital as companies are beginning to take a different approach in how they value the staff they bring into their businesses. Employers have worked out that their most successful employees have an underlying resilience and strong interpersonal skills.” 

"While universities have a strong strategy on academic capital, they need to have a game plan on capability capital as companies are beginning to take a different approach in how they value the staff they bring into their businesses."

Recently, the University rejected calls for a general financial reimbursement to students in response to the disruption caused by industrial action earlier on in the year and Covid-19. Greening, who intended to reform tuition fees before she lost her job as education secretary, welcomes recent challenges to tuition fees and said “we need to listen and be sympathetic to the points students are making right now”. 

Greening labelled Labour’s recent proposals to scrap fees and have university funding paid for by general taxpayers as “regressive”. Instead, she would replace the current system, which borrows money from the taxpayer and is repaid by the student in the form of a loan, with a Higher Education Fund. “I would like to see higher education take a similar approach to national insurance,” she explains. “Young people who go to university would pay into a Higher Education Fund to give the next generation of young people the same opportunities.” 

In order for this system to be progressive, “the people who financially benefit the most from university should pay the most back into it,” Greening says. “At the moment, if I’m a university graduate who goes into the city or if I’m a student from a family with significant wealth, I can pay off my student loan no problem. This aspect of the system needs to be changed. Employers could also contribute to the fund to support the degrees that are important to their organisations.” 

“We should have a ‘new normal’ that is better because I don’t want to go back to the version of Britain with the levels of inequality we had.” 

The coronavirus has also raised questions about the digital divide in the UK student body. Educational inequality has been exacerbated as students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds lack access to online resources and internet connectivity varies in different parts of the country. A recent NUS survey found that 20% of students who had been offered online learning did not agree “that they were able to access it adequately”. Faced with the pressures of a public health crisis, the Department of Education recently announced that they will provide 10,000 families in England with free internet access for the next six months. 


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“The digital divide matters even more now,” Greening says. “As Secretary of State for International Development, I went to all these countries that had various challenges and they looked at Britain as a class-driven society. It's almost a tradition that we have inequality of opportunity.  We should have a ‘new normal’ that is better because I don’t want to go back to the version of Britain with the levels of inequality we had." 

For better or for worse, the coronavirus has accelerated trends in the digital transformation of education. But perhaps there are more important takeaways from the pandemic than obsessing over the efficiency of new e-learning tools. This is an opportunity to interrogate the deep inequalities which run through our education system and establish a 'new normal' that is more equitable.