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James Pitman, Study Group

In March, Study Group announced that James Pitman, its managing director of development for UK and Europe, had joined the British Council’s newly-established Higher Education Sector Group. Working to help shape British Council policy and advocate for the sector, Pitman spoke with The PIE News about his work and the current issues facing the UK higher education sector.


governmentPhoto: Study Group

"It's incumbent on us as providers to provide more flexibility"

The PIE: Tell us about this new working group.

James Pitman: The purpose of it is to interface with higher education and make sure that the British Council and the strategy in relation to education is totally aligned with the sector.

On the sector group we’ve got all the representative sector bodies and then a representative range of senior international staff from a variety of universities.

I’m very pleased to have been invited to join. I feel I am representing not just private providers, but also, because of my role as vice chair of Independent Higher Education, representing independent higher education providers.

The PIE: What sort of issues are of the most concern to you at the moment?

JP: One of the issues we’re pressing about is quarantine arrangements because the quarantine hotel arrangements for red list countries are going to be totally inadequate for an influx of students come September.

“We’ve been lobbying the government to try and persuade them that quarantining could be much better done on university campuses”

We’ve been lobbying the government to try and persuade them that quarantining could be much better done on university campuses. Given that they did that successfully last year, we see no reason why they couldn’t make arrangements.

Just think about India being on the red list. If they are still on the red list come September, you’re potentially talking about 50,000 students. If it stays as it is and it’s only these quarantine hotels, there just won’t be the capacity. And on top of it, it’s expensive for students.

The PIE: Students have also been asking about vaccine eligibility when they arrive in the UK. Can you shed any light on that?

JP: Vaccination is obviously one of our very strong suits in the UK. We did try and persuade the universities minister to offer vaccination on arrival in the country. She’s confirmed that they’re not able to do that, but they have announced that as soon as the student is in the country and they register with the NHS, they will be eligible for vaccination.

The PIE: Can you talk a bit about visas and what you’d like to see change in terms of visa categories?

JP: This all ties into another angle that we’re trying to push government on. At the moment students have to get different kinds of study visas to come into the UK. So if they come in just to do an English language course for under a year, they get a short-term study visa. But of course, then they have to go back to their home country to apply for a Tier 4 to come back into the UK to study, which is risking bringing a new Covid variant into the country.

What we would like to have is a single study visa which is of indeterminate length where, as long as they comply with the conditions of the visa, it gets extended for the next stage of their study.

The PIE: Some international students who have been in the UK during Covid are now facing financial issues due to the lack of jobs available during lockdown. A new graduate route has been introduced, but what about work rights for current students?

JP: Very often students are coming from markets which are much more price sensitive. In many instances, they have to work part time to fund their studies. I think it’s incumbent on us as providers to provide more flexibility in offering the opportunity for students to both study and work at the same time.

“We’re in a situation where a lot of these markets are looking to actually work in parallel to their study”

It may mean rethinking how courses are delivered and making it more flexible so that students do have the chance to do that. Historically it’s always been that people study full time and maybe they get jobs in the holidays. But I think we’re in a situation where a lot of these markets are looking to actually work in parallel to their study. And I think we should facilitate that.

The PIE: What would that look like? Classes at weekends?

JP: Well, possibly having classes at different times such as in the evening, and more online or more blended delivery. I think that’s another thing the government’s got to face up to. Various concessions have been extended during Covid for blended delivery and online delivery. The reality is that in the future, a lot of learning is going to be blended. It’s going to be more digital.

There are a lot of advantages and classes are not going to go back to what they were before. This kind of delivery is here to stay. And the government needs to recognise that.

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