This article is more than 1 year old

Michelle Donelan’s complaints process for online learning doesn’t work

This article is more than 1 year old

Joe Wiltshire is the founder at Keep It Real, a student led campaign calling for a return to in-person lectures

In late July 2021, when my university released an email stating that contrary to clear government guidance they were going to be sticking with online lectures, my heart sank.

I was set to receive just 6 hours of on-campus teaching a week, something that after practically a full academic year in lockdown, did not fill me with excitement.

The message in the press from further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan has been clear, relentless and consistent since early on in the pandemic – use the university complaints system, and take it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if you’re still unhappy.

But when we submitted a 20-strong group complaint all the way to the OIAHE (the students complaints adjudicator body), it was rejected on the basis that the university’s promises on delivery had been vague, there was wriggle room in government guidance and we’d been warned over the summer – although not in a way that would have reasonably allowed any student to actually switch university.

The truth is that the complaints regime that further and higher education minister Michelle Donelan has continually advocated as the way of getting redress doesn’t work, and the assertions that students have rights are seemingly impossible to enforce.

It means that students need to pursue alternative routes to get the education they were promised and need – and I’d therefore urge students to show the government that it needs to get to grips with this situation before it becomes too late.

We simply cannot let predominantly online learning become normalised.

Sum of the parts

The feeling of disassociation and mundanity that online learning entails creates an absence of what I believe to be the most important part of a university education – progression from a teenage student to a young professional.

Some would argue that thinking of university in this way is odd, but higher education is about more than the individual learning outcomes from individual modules. The reality is that the social interactions you engage in around campus help you to find your place in the world.

You are constantly learning what you both like and dislike not only in other people’s behaviour but in your own. This is a vital learning curve for students – who without it would be thrust into the working world without the social maturity to feel comfortable working around other professionals.

Online learning is devoid of this vital component, feeling more like a collection of recorded TED talks than an all-encompassing education, something that crossed my mind as I recently agreed to fork out another £9250 for my third academic year.

What students want

With complaints going nowhere, we knew that campaigning was the only option.

But for the campaign to combat a slide towards online learning, we knew that we had to show that a majority of students felt the same way.

The constant argument of the university has been that students actually quite liked online learning, and that’s true for some, given the ease of being able to watch lectures from the comfort of a bed at irregular hours.

In reality the debate has never been about whether there should be any online aspects to higher education – of course there should. The argument – obscured by the press, several surveys and by universities themselves – has always been about whether there is less in-person contact than there was pre-pandemic.

And that’s not to say that all in-person contact pre-pandemic was perfect. But replacing an imperfect in-person lecture with a video recording, or a poorly run seminar with an online version that has low engagement doesn’t make any of that better – just cheaper.

So we knew we needed to show students what they were missing out on, and then find a way of registering their dissatisfaction.

To do this we utilised Instagram to gain a large following of KCL students. This allowed us to spread our messages with ease, messages of warning, messages of sympathy, and eventually personal messages from students in the form of testimonials.

After just a few weeks, it became clear to us that there was considerable support for this cause, motivating us to take the next step and organise a university-wide poll.

A huge response

With the help of the KCL students’ union, who have supported us continually, we organised a poll that was sent to all students. It had a simple question: How would you like your teaching at KCL to be offered? Online or In-person.

The response rate was the largest the SU has ever seen, with almost 2000 students voting in the space of 48 hours. 75% of those who chose not to abstain supported a return to in-person teaching.

This was, as far as I know, the first only truly democratic poll of its kind nationwide and was the perfect evidence to present to KCL in our continued discussions.

So after many months of campaigning, debating, networking, and student-polling, we have finally reached the result we were after. The university has announced to all students that whilst online teaching will not be abandoned, it will only ever be used to complement the same level of in-person contact time as was seen pre-pandemic – a victory for our campaign.

I would implore any students who are similarly dissatisfied with the teaching they are receiving to take a stand.

Spread your message using the digital tools you have at your disposal, show students what they are missing out on, convince them to rally behind your cause, and then use their support as evidence to stiff-arm your university heads into submission.

It is remarkable what students can achieve when they swim in the same direction – and important that they do.

2 responses to “Michelle Donelan’s complaints process for online learning doesn’t work

  1. Well done to Joseph Wiltshire for his fantastic campaign. Online teaching is fundamentally different from face-to-face teaching. How on earth can it be right that Students paying £9250 per year have no consumer rights with regards to the delivery method of their teaching? The OIAHE shouldn’t allow Universities to arbitrarily & unilaterally change the teaching method to online, yet that is precisely what they have ‘ruled’ for the KCL complaint, thus leaving all students no rights to receive the teaching delivery method of their choice. Michelle Donelan needs to look at this issue urgently as she appears to be completely mistaken to have advocated the OIAHE as the answer to issues about continuing online teaching.

  2. Well, probably the fault is not with the OIA but consumer legislation, which isn’t best designed for this kind of situation. According to the above, KCL communicated with the students in advance (thereby notifying them of a change in delivery in accordance with consumer legislation) and they, theoretically had a choice at that point to leave their place at a prestigious institution or stick it out. We don’t know if KCL had been affected by the numbers increase caused by the examnishambles and whether the online component only applied to lectures (only lectures are mentioned at the beginning of the article).

    Whether it’s fair for the students may not come into it that much if the CMA requirements have all been met (technically that would mean it would be ‘fair’ even if it might not feel that way). In any case, it’s risky drawing conclusions without having all the facts available and I suspect that there would have been something to have caused them to rule the way they did.

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