Step Up Summit – in review

11 June 2020

21 May saw the first online Step Up Summit: 2030 tech vision in six months. Sharing best practice for the world after COVID-19. This event had been scheduled to take place at the University of London, but was moved to a more condensed online format due to COVID-19. This did not affect attendance – with over 100 organisations joining, including 50 higher education institutions, and many Step Up companies.

The event was chaired by Mary Curnock Cook, former CEO of UCAS who sits on several higher education boards. The main focus was on the current acceleration of technology in institutions. Discussions were based around the short-term reaction to COVID-19 and longer-term change in the sector. Other speakers included Jisc’s CEO Paul Feldman, Universities UK Director of Policy Chris Hale and Alison Johns, CEO of Advance UK.

One of the highlights of the session was the keynote speech from Brian Fleming Preparing for 2030 in 6 months. Brian is Vice-President for Innovation and Strategy at Southern New Hampshire University in the US. He shared many insights from his experiences at SNHU and began by framing the discussion with the VUCA concept – the volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous nature of the current situation we are in. Brian asserted that institutions need to expect and plan for more uncertainty in the future. He addressed how universities must re-evaluate the way they embrace change to be ready for a future which will continue to challenge. ‘Don’t be afraid to be ridiculous’ was one of his closing comments.

Jisc and Emerge recently launched a series of research reports with the first identifying key challenges faced by UK institutions; From fixes to foresight: Jisc and Emerge Education insights for universities and startups. In-depth reports on each problem area are currently in the works, and the breakout sessions at the Step Up Summit focused on the first three challenge reports to be tackled – Digital Assessment, Employability and Diversity and Student Recruitment. Digital Assessment, report recently released, was led by Chris Cobb of the University of London. Employability by Quintin McKellar of University of Hertfordshire and Student Recruitment by Katie Bell of Middlesex University, both reports to come later this summer. There were many other sector experts as panel members, from QAA, Advance HE, edtech startups and university senior leaders.

In the Assessment session, Chris Cobb explored topics like the importance of digital assessment being reflective of the learning process, and the challenges faced in upholding standards. The discussion focused on the difficulties of connectivity and ensuring a seamless provision for all in a global context. The term ‘Pandora’s box’ described digital assessment and the current disruption of the education landscape. Many of the speakers in the Assessment breakout session also contributed their sector expertise to the Assessment Rebooted research report. 

The Employability breakout session saw many insights on how higher education is coping with the shifting landscape. Quintin McKellar talked about the acceleration of digital skills in preparation for the changing workplace. There were also discussions around how the traditional method of lecturing students in a lecture hall is out of date, and how new technologies are being used to better support student learning.

The Student Recruitment group was led by Katie Bell and it’s clear that COVID-19 is having a major impact on recruiting students. There were contributions from Lucy Everest of Heriot-Watt University and Helen Pennack of University of Nottingham about how universities are having to be creative in how they ensure current placeholders stay engaged. Teams and Facebook chat are being used to do this among other things. Jonathan Tinnacher from Unibuddy and Jeffrey Williams from Enroly both talked about the view from the solution side. Jonathan highlighted the development at Unibuddy in creating live events. This contributes to reassuring students when making difficult choices. Jeffrey talked about how Enroly is removing hours of admin tasks, easing pressure on admission departments. 

The summit ended with a panel debate with many of the previous contributors and a summing up. There is a general conclusion that COVID-19 is just the beginning of the ‘NNN’ or New Normal Now as mentioned by David Maguire of Dundee University. Most agreed that this is the time to seize the opportunity to accelerate into advanced digital transformation. However, there is still much work to do. Collaboration between institutions and support organisations is crucial. There were contributions from Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor of Portsmouth University, Jane Armstrong of Salesforce and several edtech founders. There were closing comments from Steve Masters, Jisc’s CTO, on the growth of the Step Up programme and the mission to bring senior education leaders and edtech startups together.

Like any engaging debate, this summit made clear that there are always more questions than answers, but due to COVID-19, we’re seeing higher education technologies and approaches shift faster than anyone could have predicted.

Learn more and register for our next event in this series, Step Up Summit II on 8th July 2020, HERE.

GESA at Bett awards 2020

31 January 2020

There is never a dull moment in the world of edtech startups and this was more apparent than ever at the The Global EdTech Startup Awards (GESAwards) in January. Part of the Bett conference, the awards which are now in their 6th year, celebrate the best innovations in edtech from 17 countries around the world, taken from thousands of applications.

Expecting the typical monotone presentation ceremony, I was pleasantly surprised. The nominees came bounding onto the stage with infectious enthusiasm, accompanied by an upbeat music soundtrack pumping out during the links.

Innovations specific to schools – over 40% – make up a large portion of the nominees with reading skills still being a major focus for edtech. Of the rest, higher education made up 18% of the nominees. 

Undoubtedly the stars of the show were Spanish company Genially who have taken the sector by storm creating a platform which brings content right up to date, bringing any document or message to life. Genially came first, winning a substantial $20,000 of Google cloud credits and also won the People’s Choice award on the night.

It was great to see UK-based nominees and Step Up members, Blackbullion, bag two awards – one for generating social mobility, as well as being awarded overall runners-up on the night. 

The clear priority of these awards is that companies have a particular problem to solve, and this was a running theme in all the presentations from founders which made up the bulk of the evening. Founders spoke with passion about how they were compelled to start their companies because there was a gap in the market that they felt they could fill, and a real problem they could solve through technology.

The message is clear – global edtech is very much a thriving and dynamic sector and brimming with ideas so – as ever – watch this space. It was great  to see a celebration of global technology and hats off to those presenting. I’m sure the major issue for the winners and runners up on the night must have been – ‘how do I get this gigantic cheque onto a packed tube?’.

It’s all about the money: National Student Money Week 2020

6 March 2020

Spring is in the air for 2020 with the spending excesses of the festive period now seeming like a long time ago. Now is a good time to give our finances a spring clean and get those credit cards and bank balances back on track.

The student population across the UK is experiencing increasing living and accommodation costs. It’s no wonder that many students worry about how they are going to make ends meet. A Save the Student survey this year finds that more than half of students struggle to keep up with rent. This has a major impact on their health and engagement and ability to study well.

Students facing hardship and debt while studying is nothing new. In an age where the student experience and wellbeing are central to universities’ duty of care – where is the support to help students manage their money and make better financial choices?

National Student Money Week (NSMW) aims to improve understanding of the impact on students’ experience. The initiative is in it’s 9th year and run by the National Association of Student Money Advisors (NASMA). This year’s theme was ‘Spend healthy – live healthy’ and included wider issues like the environment and sustainability.

Innovating in this field are Step Up members Blackbullion. Blackbullion’s financial education platform is going from strength to strength in UK institutions. I caught up with their CEO and Founder Vivi Friedgut to talk about their collaboration with NSMW and gained some insights into the important conversations around students and money.

Vivi Friedgut - Founder and CEO of Blackbullion

“Blackbullion is a startup with a mission to empower young people to be money smart. Financial difficulty is the number one predictor of student attrition. 64% of students say financial anxiety affects their mental health. Blackbullion is being integrated into universities’ widening participation strategies to help ease worries and inject a dose of financial confidence”

Vivi Friedgut, Balckbullion

Blackbullion has been an official supporter of NSMW for two years. I wondered what impact this had on students so far. What is it highlighting about the financial problems that students are facing? “Each year, over 90 universities and HE colleges take part in the campaign. With everything from drop-in sessions through to competitions on campus. The response has been overwhelming” Vivi explains. “We’re trying to break the taboo around money by talking openly and confidently about it and our relationship to it. Gen Z is less materialistic than previous generations. Spending on things like experiences and travel rather than clothes and flashy items.”

In times of rising house prices and inflation, a culture of credit cards and ‘buy now pay later’ mentality, the outlook has never been more challenging for young people when it comes to paying off debts and saving to get on the property ladder. These are things that older generations took for granted. Despite positive moves to educate young people in schools, there is still more to do. Vivi says, “Universities tell us that prospective students too often arrive on campus ill-prepared.”

How does ‘Spend Healthy, Live Healthy’ fit with some of the deeper issues affecting students when it comes to finances? Vivi says, “Financial security affects student wellbeing and we want to start the conversation on this. At the same time, young people are deeply committed to sustainable living so NSMW brings these together. We also see that students care deeply about climate change so are looking to make positive wellness changes that support that.”

NSMW pic for blog post

On a positive note, the message seems to be getting out there. This year’s NSMW has received more engagement than ever before. “It was a record year and our university partners outdid themselves this year. During the week we saw over 1,200 Tweets, 15k books given out, and hundreds of students taking part in the #zerowastejar competition. We’re thrilled to have been able to support our student services teams in this way” Vivi says. Students are now making better choices. “Students are so much more open to ideas like sharing subscriptions, making considerate travel choices and ditching fast fashion for more considered purchases.”

“It’s about education. We want to give students access to the very best financial education out there underpinned by practical financial solutions. We created the ‘The Little Book of Sustainable Money Habits’ to inspire students to make lasting changes. We collaborated with Pingit, an app to help students manage their everyday money and develop lifelong healthy financial habits.

We definitely see a shift in the money conversation. There is a tendency to save more and be more open around money. This has resulted in improved financial wellbeing. Money’s less of a taboo.

Vivi Friedgut, Balckbullion

But this is not a short-term problem and there is no easy answer. The key is involving everyone in the conversation. We can’t rely on students to get better educated about money and seek help when they need it. Institutions have a role to play as well.

“Most universities run Student Support Teams to help students with money, accommodation, wellbeing, and other student related challenges. They help students who find themselves in difficult or challenging life situations. In emergencies they have funds (often called Hardship Funds) for those in need. Many institutions identify a skills gap in students coming for help – a lack of budgeting skills, or unhealthy spending habits, for example. They can[AS5]  then provide budgeting workshops and access to tools, such as Blackbullion, to help students develop those crucial life skills.”

The wider community must also help if we are to support future generations of graduates and ensure that higher education remains a realistic choice for everyone in society. “In our State of Financial Capability Report the majority of respondents want to see financial capability become part of the core curriculum. We’re huge advocates of the holistic institution approach where universities integrate financial education and support with other departments.

The chances are that at some point in our lives everyone will have had some sticky financial moments or known someone in severe debt or with financial problems. We know how debilitating and devastating this can be. You may be feeling the financial pinch of a child at university or be looking at prospective institutions with money in mind.

It’s also easy to forget how strange those first years at university can be, even without money problems and how easy it is for students to bury their heads in the sand. Only by supporting children to develop healthy relationships with money can this improve. Parents, universities, support organisations and students must work together to make the university experience a positive one.

Eva Stirling

Thanks: Vivi Friedgut, Antonia Taylor – Blackbullion