How to improve student protection plans

During OfS’ initial registration process, no provider had a condition imposed on it under condition C3.

That means that (as far as we know) all of those “Application to register with the Office for Students” letters to chairs of governors went out with the following line in them:

During the initial registration and assessment process the OfS approved your student protection plan as it considered the plan to provide adequate mitigation for the risks to continuity of study for your students.

It’s your letters

In lots of the letters – all the ones we’ve seen from 2018, for example – there’s then this paragraph:

Further guidance about the OfS’s expectations for student protection plans will be published during 2018-19 to address a number of common weaknesses that were found during the registration process. You may wish to consider whether an update to your plan is necessary when this guidance is published, but we do not require you to take any further action at this time.

Students might have reasonably assumed that 2018-19 meant “academic year 2018-19” so that changes could be incorporated in time for this academic year. Alas, the registration process has been taking longer than anyone anticipated. Better protection for students will have to wait whilst OfS has a row with some APs.

Not all of the letters say the above. Some we’ve seen – all from 2019 – actually say a bit more:

For example, a significant number of plans did not:

  • focus on students as the audience for the plan, meaning that they were often not clear about the specific risks faced by a provider’s students and the protection that would be offered if these risks crystallised;
  • consider and address the particular circumstances of different groups of students;
  • provide clarity about provision for refund and compensation, particularly in the event that a provider is unable to preserve continuation of study for its students.

You are required to revise and resubmit your student protection plan after further guidance has been published. The guidance will contain information about the process and deadlines for resubmission.

Either it’s a coincidence that the “you will have to resubmit when the guidance comes out” letters are all from 2019, or it might be that OfS decided that everyone would have to do a rewrite once the guidance appears. Either way, I thought I’d try to be positive and set out some of the things that that guidance might usefully say to improve protection for students, presumably from September 2020.

Material world

The single biggest risk to students right now is the closure of modules. I’m not talking about the gentle updating of module catalogues of old – I’m talking about the multiple module rationalisation programmes going on below the surface as the cash gets tighter in poorly recruiting schools, faculties, and departments. Students enrolled on a BSc Computing Degree who find that their optional software development modules have all been culled will likely find that their SPP cheekily doesn’t regard those as a “material component” – despite those students choosing that uni on the basis they’d get to develop software.

A much broader definition of “material component” is needed, seen through the eyes of a student – so that when a promised pathway or collection of options disappears, they’re suitably protected.

It’s all material

When providers wrote their SPPs, all focussed almost exclusively on courses. But when providers talk about where the “tuition fee” money goes, they’re at pains to talk about everything else – academic services, estates, IT, student support and facilities. SPPs should be just as focussed on any risks to the continuation of this kind of provision – essential to “study” – as campuses, courses, and module catalogues.

Progression

We’ve heard of several cases where students on foundation years find that the main degree course doesn’t exist by the time they get there – and plenty of students who are told that they’ll be able to progress to Masters’ level study in their discipline only the find that provision withdrawn. If a UG counselling course was to lead to a Masters course to qualify, you see the problem. Consumer law might technically regard all three of those as separate courses, but students regard all three as key issues of “continuation of study” – and SPPs should cover them.

Funny money

Earlier in the decade, the sector famously rejected a collective insurance scheme in the wake of the removal of the Tier 4 license from London Met. But it remains the case that there are plenty of providers who – at the point of collapse – would simply be unable to meet commitments in an SPP (especially if they were improved) or deliver refunds and compensation. OfS ought to be requiring providers to show where the money would come from, probably by asking them to identify and set aside funds in this event.

Compare and contrast

For a regulator so focussed on outcomes, you’d think that it would be insisting that where students were offered a transfer, there would be a node to ensuring comparability of those outcomes, rather than just course content. In fact, consideration ought be given to the way in which “similar” or “comparable” provision might be secured in all aspects of the “sold” student experience- the course itself, academic services/facilities, wider non-academic services/facilities and outcomes like student satisfaction and graduate employment. Getting widespread agreement on what constitutes comparability would be a whole other matter.

Honest provider risk

The current focus of SPPs appears to be dealing with a closure and assessing the arrangements for a closure in relation to risk – but it would be in the student interest for an element of SPPs to outline the risks to provision and the steps a provider is taking to minimise those risks – in other words a plan to avoid closure rather than deal with its aftermath. That sounds sensible, no?

Not all SPPs actually detail the risk assessment to study continuation, and obviously they should. But for those that do you’d think that running a Higher Education provider these days was a doddle, because it’s really hard to find anything in any of them marked anything other than vanishingly unlikely.

Our favourite of the genre is this from Hadlow College, published in September 2018:

The risk that Hadlow College is unable to fulfil its commitment to students because of corporate financial performance is assessed as low. The financial performance of the College has been robust over an extended period. We consider the risk that the provider as a whole is unable to operate is low because our financial performance is strong over time, with a clean external financial audit track record over the period.

It was put into educational administration this May after receiving £2.827 million of emergency funding from the Department for Education in February alone, after it said it was out of cash when the leadership had quit.

The bottom line is that if SPPs deliver arrangements relative to risk, and providers aren’t being honest in those SPPs about risk, they’re faulty. So OfS should be requiring those SPP risk assessments to at least reflect whether they’re under enhanced monitoring (perhaps even by OfS!) for their finances (ditto if they’re an FE provider with a “Financial Improvement Notice” slapped on it by DfE). In fact, the risk assessment in the SPP should be directly linked to the risk register you’d hope the Governing Body was maintaining, with dire consequences for an provider admitting a risk in confidence to its governing body that it wasn’t fessing up to in its SPP.

Oh, and the idea that industrial action doesn’t appear as a risk in most Pre-92 SPPs right now is… laughable. Either the sector seriously doesn’t regard that as a risk, or OfS needs to be clearer that threats to study continuation can be both temporary and permanent.

Rationalising provider risk

One of the problems with provider level TEF is statistical – there are Bronze providers on the register whose entire student body could be enrolled on a single university module which would be able to brandish a Gold rating.

There’s a similar issue with SPPs. The closure of a course, for example (not a reportable event) at one HEI could be smaller in student impact than the closure of a whole small provider at another (very much a reportable event). I don’t recall it saying anywhere on the OfS website that “you’ll get proportionately more protection from your SPP if you choose a small p[lace”, but that’s the long and tall of it. Instead of fiddling about with definitions of courses (or campuses) it should just pick a number of a unit number students that risks should be considered from the perspective of.

Compensation

Some of the arrangements and commitments for compensation in event of risk crystallisation right now are pretty woeful. Some barely mention wider student costs at all; some offer general stuff that fails to take into account those that can’t move three hundred miles to another university. SPPs should include compensation for students having to move to study in a new location – and should assume that the role of the provider is to meet in full any costs (particularly relating to study materials, travel and accommodation) incurred by a student arising from new arrangements.

Teach out

We all know what happens when “teach out” is promised – investment goes into “band aid” mode on facilities and academics jump ship. Plans should include an independent assessment of “teach out” proposals in the event of a closure and OfS should commit to ongoing monitoring of these arrangements.

Franchise and validation

It’s clear from the current crop that it’s not at all clear where a student should look to discover the protection arrangements for their course where it’s validated or franchised. This is a subset of a much bigger “leaky bucket”, but we need clarity – tested through student eyes – on who’s supposed to be providing the protection, and over what.

Engaging students

Finally, given plans are about protecting students, you’d want students to be involved in the development and review of them wouldn’t you? It’s pretty difficult to find an SU that was meaningfully involved in the development of the current crop, and by meaningful I mean more than membership of the committee it was rammed through.

Ideally all providers should involve students and their representatives in the identification of continuation risk, and report on what’s been done with that feedback in the annual revision. And weblinks SPPs should obviously all be on “Discover Uni”, right?

One response to “How to improve student protection plans

  1. Excellent broad review. The major problem in working out the cost of an SPP, and then somehow in the potential context of the insolvency process applying being able to protect that finding against the calls from other creditors, is that we have no High Court or CofA decisions on how the law of contract damages applies to the U-S contract – we have only a lowly County Court case re Ryecotewood College concerning an HND course, but, crucially, it not only refunded fees (and in addition ordered the Funding Council Grants to the course to be paid to the students!) but also awarded each £2500 for anxiety/hassle/disappointment compensation – £2500 may not sound a lot, but it adds up if several thousand students are caught up in a failing HEP…

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