The panic is over – so here’s five things to fix now the real crisis has begun

Across the country university professional services staff have moved on to the next phase in the Covid-19 conundrum – recovery and re-opening.

Measuring tapes are being deployed up and down the land, spacing out 2m markers as showcase lecture theatres tumble from a capacity of 400 to 20.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then right now that necessity is greater than ever – for safe, socially distant teaching in the Autumn to the 2.5 million students wanting to study in the United Kingdom in the next academic year.

The problem is that what nobody can see in the campus space surveys is the gargantuan elephant in the lecture theatre. It’s there, holding a big sign which says “This is not the Student Experience you were promised” – either conceptually or legally.

1. Promises promises

With the best will in the world, what is feasible in October, with all the statistics and science in our favour (let alone a slip back down the Covid-alertometer) is not what was promised when our continuing students enrolled, when new students first applied, or when children were told about “university” in their youth.

It doesn’t matter that some people picked the OU, or that the teaching and assessment might be “equivalent” or “comparable”. Take a moment to look at your own institution’s prospectus. Somewhere in there are pictures of a smiley group of students having a responsible night of fun at the local student nightclub, which may not now open until 2021.

There will be promises of shops, bars, restaurants, libraries, learning centres, hives, hubs, help centres, and lecture theatres; lots and lots of lecture theatres. A bustling little town full of students and academics and professional staff to mix with. We can’t just ignore the elephant who is obviously telling us, no matter what the minister may say, that what was promised can not be delivered.

2. In your eyes

As well as students, we do need to look at this problem through the eyes of those who we might generally assume to be opposed to much of what the sector does. You know the sort – those across the commentariat who are looking for a dig at what they regard as an over inflated sausage factory producing worthless graduates from low quality degrees. How can we convince them that universities have more of a bailout case than British Airways?

The research from the nation’s Universities that is so critical in the COVID fight has all been supported by the wider University ecosystem.If we argue as a sector that a viable and high quality student experience can be delivered online, we are in the end talking ourselves out of the business model that makes everything else possible. Are we sure that’s such a good idea? A university is not a small endeavour. Even the smaller institutions have hundreds rather than tens of staff. Communities rely on them, local small businesses make a livelihood from them – and in some locales the university is the very lynchpin around which society hangs.

And anyway, why would we spend billions on a furlough scheme to protect jobs only to see them evaporate the moment the furlough scheme ends? The preservation of employment makes absolute sense after all the resources expended on doing this so far. Any mass redundancy programme would see an inexorable drain on the talent available to UK Plc in a world class industry. Remember, Government, the promise you made in March when you said you were with us.

3. Fair’s fair

Next, students deserve fairness in fees. You wouldn’t sell a car with a virtual back seat, so universities can’t continue to charge for a student experience that is not as promised. Clearly in practical terms only the Treasury and the DfE have the ability to solve this problem. This could be a novel approach such as an interest free year on fees and loans, which would have no upfront cost to the Treasury, but a substantial cost reduction to the student (granted there would be inequities to be considered).

Alternatively a blanket discount could be applied to every course funded through Government loans, while universities continue to receive the full fee. Looking at the OfS “wider public interest” test, it would not be acceptable to receive a treasury subsidy while continuing to take full fees from non-UK students. That would have to be the sector’s side of the bargain – to match a fee reduction to unregulated students.

4. Bubble wrap

Next, it is time for universities to stop living in an isolated bubble. The sector can’t write in a promise of mergers when pleading for a bailout, and then deliver no collaborative solutions. Take the sector favourite, Business Management. There are almost as many Business Management degree programmes as there are universities, and right now there are over a hundred module leaders delivering financial management modules online to thousands of management students.

This is prime territory for collaboration – clusters of Business schools coming together to deliver BBC levels of production for these modules – to fulfil that promise of a world class education, not a shaky webcam in the kitchen apologising for the dog barking in the background. A lecture that is online, is not the same as an online lecture. The top UK University YouTube channel is the University of Cambridge with 230k subscribers, but that is dwarfed by Periodic Videos 1.3m subscribers from the University of Nottingham which produces short engaging videos on chemistry. The bigger threat however is from beyond the sector, popular creators such as Rick Beato can deliver a 30 minute lecture on musical theory live to his 1.5m followers. When the playing field becomes “online only”, then the learning premier league is not on such solid ground. To collaborate on online delivery doesn’t mean rationalising lecturers and tutors, but it means making the resources we have available instead for individual tutorials and seminar groups, freed from having to Zoom to 400 students about how to read a set of management accounts. This is the support our students are asking for in droves, a return to personalised tuition.

5. Living on a payer

Finally, we’ll need to fix the cost of living. Let’s remind ourselves of what the Augar review had to say on the subject:

In considering the evidence on maintenance costs, we do not doubt that the cost of living is a problem for students”.

The coming recession will make this many times worse, and the shady practices of the accommodation providers need to be dealt with now, and with a heavy hand. Being able to issue “licences” (with limited student rights) as opposed to tenancies (with proper rights) was acceptable when it was only universities providing accommodation. But if we have learned anything over that last few months it is that private housing providers do not have the same interests as universities when it comes to those sleeping in their rooms.

The “licence” is now an overstretched legal agreement that weights the contractual balance far too much in the hands of the provider, and it is right to time limit accommodation licences, returning them for the purpose they were originally intended for – hotels and hostels. Student accommodation needs a new legal framework for occupation that redresses the balance, protects the white knights of the industry and drives away the cowboys.

All of this means conversation with students, communities and the public as much as it means ministerial lobbying. We have to take a lead on the sort of adult, rational conversation required over the solutions; or we can continue to feed the elephant sticky buns and suffer years of class action complaints and court cases for years to come.

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