Annual House of Lords reception and luncheon 20 May 2022

Annual House of Lords reception and luncheon 20 May 2022

Dame Madeleine Atkins addresses attendeesOver 70 members and friends of the National Conference of University Professors attended the annual House of Lords reception and luncheon on the wet morning of 20 May 2022. Travelling from all over UK, professors and their associates met for the first time in over two years, to catch-up re-establish links and make some new connections to address our mission: to improve scholarship and preserve core academic values.

We travelled through the Lords from Black Rod’s Garden to the Cholmondeley Room, finishing on the terrace, as the unwelcome rain ended, and the sun shone over The Thames.  We were served an excellent lunch and the tables became busy with lively discussion of the current challenges and changes being faced across the higher education sector. The lunch was hosted by our Patron Baroness Pauline Perry who opened proceedings.

After lunch we were addressed by Dame Madeleine Atkins, formerly Chief Executive Officer of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and presently President of Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge (a short report is provided below). Large external influences continue to shape our sector and members were free to comment on higher education post-COVID: with talk of pivoting online and back, towards blended or flexible learning; the continuing movement towards ‘students as consumers’; the place of higher scores and higher ranking in achieving higher quality higher education; the impending disquiet amongst hard-pressed staff and the squeeze on free speech and academic freedom.

Before we departed, past-President Professor Terence Davis OBE presented the Director of HEPI (the Higher Education Policy Institute) with an honorary Fellowship of the National Conference of University Professors, only the second time this has been awarded, the first recipient being our patron Baroness Perry.

Nick Hillman being presented with Hon FNCUP by Professor Terence Davis

With concerns about the pandemic and recent restrictions on many people’s minds there had been doubts about whether the event would proceed. In the end, with such an outstanding attendance and with members always ready to debate matters of the day, we left satiated in mind and body.

From in-person teaching to avatars in the metaverse: just how many ‘realities’ will universities have to address in future?

On 20 May 2022 Dame Madeleine Atkins addressed members and guests of the National Conference of University Professors at our main annual event, a lunch with speaker at the House of Lords. The event, postponed since 2020, was hosted by our patron Baroness Pauline Perry.

Dame Madeline explained how the restrictions in face-to-face teaching due to pandemic measures in 2020 and 2021 and the concomitant growth of online teaching had brought into focus the issue of virtual learning. Showing a remarkable knowledge of contemporary online gaming platforms and culture, she highlighted the fact that only a minority of people (12%) completed online courses designed for adults to help them do their jobs better.

By contrast, younger people of school age and early university years spent inordinate amounts of time online often engaged in online gaming. The reasons may be that online teaching is generally poorly designed and that the best modern gaming platforms were using immersive technologies such as extended reality. These were more engaging and almost took users into a separate reality where items could be bought and sold using virtual currencies and in which individuals attained great mastery.

Dame Madeleine set a few questions for discussion including the very interesting case of a student (called Tom for the purpose of the exercise) who had achieved a notable level of achievement on a current online game, appearing on the international leader board. He had then managed to monetise this ability by teaching others how to play the game and had shown a considerable among of entrepreneurship as a result. When applying for university he had questioned his school about including this on his UCAS form. The school advised against it. Dame Madeleine asked us, some of whom may be in the position of selecting students for admission, whether we would favour an application by Tom. There was almost unanimous support amongst her audience for looking favourably on an application from Tom.

There is clearly a gap between what universities are providing by way of online teaching and what those who consume it want and which yet does not recognise their abilities in the online environment. When questioned about this, Dame Madeleine left us with the reflection that, largely, university teaching staff were inadequately prepared for online teaching and a very long way from competence with the more advanced immersive technologies.

Roger Watson & George Kernohan

21 May 2022