Starting something new is always a balance of challenge and inspiration. When I agreed to become TASO’s Director in February 2020, I obviously didn’t have any idea that a global pandemic would profoundly affect all of our lives and work that year, nor that it would extend into 2021.
While challenges remain, I’ve been impressed by how well we have all learned to adapt to this environment, even as new difficulties have often emerged just as some light had begun to appear at the end of the tunnel. In this context, as I look back on 2021 it’s hard not to be impressed by what we have been able to achieve here at TASO, in what has been a defining year for the organisation.
First, operationally we have managed to establish TASO as an independent charitable organisation. This wasn’t always easy, with legal and financial paperwork and processes taking somewhat longer than anticipated, but we are grateful to King’s College London for hosting us until March 2021, to our other consortium partners Nottingham Trent University and the Behavioural Insights Team, as well as to our lawyers for helping us to successfully navigate these challenges.
A second major success for TASO has been in communications. Having launched our website in 2020, we have continued to grow our footprint, including our toolkit, hosting internal and external blogs, and regular newsletters, as well as an active social media presence. Most successful was our first annual conference, in March 2021. We had over 600 people attend over the course of the two days, and a number of high profile speakers, including the Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP.
As part of the conference the TASO team also provided a number of training sessions, with excellent take-up and interest from across the sector. We will continue to support effective evaluation for those working on tackling inequalities in higher education through webinars, guidance and reports.
This points to a third area of achievement, namely the launch of important research reports on topics including mature learners and care experienced learners along with well attended launches for these reports. Our research projects on summer schools and race equality gaps have progressed throughout the year, and will be launched in early 2022. We have also announced our new themes: on employment, mental health and disability. Between them, our research and evaluation team and our communications team are going to be busy with around a dozen reports, briefings or guidance produced next year, and with a number of (initially still online) events as well.
As this overview of our work indicates, TASO has been busy and productive in 2021 despite the undoubted impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately the pandemic will continue to affect us, the wider sector and indeed everyone around the world into 2022. I would like to thank everyone who has helped to support us in 2021, but especially my colleagues at TASO, who have worked through the challenges of Zoom meetings and changing plans (will an in-person activity happen or not), and supported me and each other despite mainly working and interacting remotely.
TASO’s work is just as important as ever, with the pandemic revealing and in some ways exacerbating existing social inequalities. Our focus on impact evaluation is to ensure that activities to address these inequalities are as effective as possible. Ultimately our work is guided not just by a commitment to robust research methodologies, but to improving people’s lives. That aim is particularly pressing in a year where everyone in higher education – leaders, academics, professional staff, and most of all students – has had such a challenging time. By the end of 2022 I hope TASO’s work has made a real difference to people’s lives, and that the students who attend higher education have a more inspiring future.