Gravity assist: a new era for higher education?

An event to launch the report of the digital teaching and learning review, led by Sir Michael Barber.

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Commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education, the digital teaching and learning review examines the rapid shift to digital teaching and learning in English universities at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

This event marked the launch of the final report and was an opportunity to hear from academic leaders and students about their experience as learners and teachers navigating the world of online education. It explored issues of digital access and asked what the longer-term opportunities of digital teaching and learning are for the future.

Attendees heard from OfS Chair, Sir Michael Barber and Strategic Policy Adviser, Lara Bird who will discuss the findings and the recommendations of the review. This will be followed by a keynote from Paul LeBlanc, University President and CEO of Southern New Hampshire University and a panel discussion with Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President (Higher Education) at the National Union of Students UK, Professor Lisa Roberts, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive at the University of Exeter, Carol Paige, Democracy, Operations and Community Sabbatical Officer at Students’ Union UCL and Professor Mark Simpson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching) at Teesside University.


1300 Welcome from Sir Michael Barber
1305 Introductory remarks from the Secretary of State for Education (pre-recorded)
1315 Keynote from Sir Michael Barber and Lara Bird
1330 Keynote from Paul LeBlanc

Panel discussion and audience Q&A

  • Paul LeBlanc
  • Hillary Gyebi-Ababio
  • Professor Lisa Roberts
  • Carol Paige
  • Professor Mark Simpson

The panel will be chaired by Sir Michael Barber

1425 Concluding remarks
1430 Close


Sir Michael Barber is one of the leading education and government experts of the last 20 years. He is the first and current chair of the Office for Students, and author of Gravity Assist.

He served as Chief Adviser to the Secretary of State for Education on School Standards from 1997 to 2001 during which time school performance improved significantly.

In 2001 he set up the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit in No 10 Downing Street to ensure the successful implementation of the Prime Minister’s priorities in domestic policy including education and health.

Sir Michael is the author of several books, including ‘How to Run a Government’ (Penguin, 2016) and ‘Accomplishment’ (Penguin, forthcoming 2021).

Having worked as Head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice and as Pearson’s Chief Education Adviser, Michael now leads his own company, Delivery Associates, and is currently conducting a review into government delivery on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary.

Lara Bird is a Strategic Policy Adviser at the Office for Students and Lead researcher for 'Gravity Assist: propelling higher education towards a brighter future’.

In her role at the Office for Students, Lara is based in the Strategy team where she works on tracking the organisation’s progress against its strategic objectives and briefing the chief executive and her team on cross-cutting issues to inform strategic planning.

Lara’s academic background is in philosophy and while at university Lara held voluntary roles for multiple education charities and led outreach events for pupils from underrepresented backgrounds.

Dr Paul J. LeBlanc is President of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). Under the 17 years of Paul’s direction, SNHU has more grown from 2,800 students to over 152,000 and is the largest non-profit provider of online higher education in the country. It's the first to have a full competency-based degree programme untethered to the credit hour or classes approved by a regional accreditor and the US Department of Education. In 2018, SNHU acquired LRNG, a non-profit serving an additional 50,000 low income youth in 18 major American cities.

Paul is widely considered one of America’s most innovative educators. In 2012, the university was 12th on Fast Company magazine’s “World’s Fifty Most Innovative Companies” list and was the only university included. Forbes Magazine has listed him as one of its 15 “Classroom Revolutionaries” and Washington Monthly named him one of America’s 10 most innovative university presidents.

In 2018, Paul won the prestigious IAA Institute Hesburgh Award for Leadership Excellence in Higher Education, joining some of the most respected university and college presidents in American higher education.

He served as Senior Policy Advisor to Under Secretary Ted Mitchell at the US Department of Education, working on competency-based education, new accreditation pathways and innovation. He also serves on the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) and served on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Board on Higher Education and Workforce. He is currently Board Chair for the American Council on Education.

Hillary is NUS Vice President for Higher Education. She was previously the Undergraduate Education Officer and Chair of the Widening Participation Network at the University of Bristol Students’ Union.

A champion of students, Hillary has worked on many projects that have looked to support the most marginalised students in education and beyond.

From decolonisation to widening access work, she is extremely passionate in ensuring that students are at the centre of education and are the architects of their own education. 

Vice-Chancellor and chief executive at the University of Exeter. Professor Lisa Roberts took up her post on 1 September 2020. Prior to this, Professor Roberts was Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at the University of Leeds where she led on the development of the University’s research and innovation strategy.

During this time she led significant increases in the income, quality and impact of research at Leeds. She also led a major step change in how the University worked with business, from start-ups to large corporates; launching a new innovation hub and leading a city-wide team of senior city stakeholders through the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (REAP).

Before joining Leeds, Lisa was Executive Dean of the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Surrey, leading the Schools of Bioscience and Medicine, Psychology and Health Sciences. During this time she also developed and launched only the 8th School of Veterinary Medicine in the UK and developed a successful One Health Strategy with external partnerships being key to its success.

Professor Roberts is a Professor of Virology, having studied for her PhD at the BBSRC Institute for Animal Health (now the Pirbright Institute) and the University of Kent. Earlier in her career, she worked as a Product Development Manager for Procter and Gamble in the UK and Belgium.

She is a Board member of the Russell Group and of the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership and Chair of the GW4 Council.

Carol is one of seven students who lead Students' Union UCL and has been a student at UCL since 2013. Before she became a Sabbatical Officer, Carol completed her Integrated Masters in Earth Science and then stayed on to pursue her MSc in Risk, Disaster and Resilience.

In her current role she oversees student democracy, the Union’s commercial activities and the benefit students bring to the local community. During her time in office, she has been pivotal in our response to the global pandemic, from leading response groups within the Union as well as working in partnership with UCL throughout the crisis response structure.

She has championed and advocated the student interest to ensure they are not disadvantaged and get the best student experience they can in these circumstances. Like her fellow Sabbatical Officers, she is committed to being true partners with the university as the best outcomes for students come about through constructive and collaborative working relationships.

Professor Mark Simpson is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching) at Teesside University. He has a national reputation for teaching and learning and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (FRSA). He is known for his work in educational digital transformation.

Professor Mark Simpson graduated from Teesside University with a degree in politics and a PhD in Criminology. He has written and researched in the fields of youth crime, criminal justice and drug use.

Further information

Email [email protected] with any questions.

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Digital Teaching and Learning Review
Last updated 01 March 2021
01 March 2021
Event recording added
25 February 2021
Event agenda added

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