Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Imagine you’re an undergraduate first year student that chose the university you’ve enrolled at on the basis of a set of pathways characterised by a large range of optional modules.

You have just carefully chosen your options for next academic year. You were allocated four of your first choices – along with one of your second choices and three of your third choices – because of “capacity restrictions”.

Maybe you’ll realise your academic ambitions in year three.

But then – the day before Good Friday – your university issued an opaque statement, saying that due to “difficult financial conditions” it is operating a voluntary redundancy scheme.

All students, you were reassured, will still be able to complete their course.

But you’re now watching, as one by one, the module leaders on all of the modules you’ve chosen announce on social media that they’ve applied for, and taken, voluntary redundancy.

You ask the university about this – but you’re told that your questions can’t be answered in anything other than generalities until the process is complete.

And then when the process is complete, you’re sent some legalese assuring you that the changes that have been made aren’t “material”, that the core dissertation module remains, and that you now have a week to choose from the modules with spare capacity that are left.

You complain, but you’re told that the contract you signed up to said that the university reserves the right to make the changes that it has made “where it will improve the student experience”.

You appeal, and the university points to Ts and Cs that says that you have the right to leave without penalty. Except you signed for a house last October. And your friend – a commuter from the area – can only really choose this university.

I was such a fool

When the Westminster government responded to Phillip Augar’s Post-18 review of education and funding back in 2022, it said there was a need a “fairer and more sustainable system for students, institutions and the taxpayer”, and a system that will “maintain our world-class universities not just for today, but for the decades to come”.

I had a look at the former of those policy goals on the site a few weeks ago. The latter now also looks to be an objective in tatters.

Thanks to the efforts of Queen Mary’s UCU branch, at the time of writing we know that 37 universities have been in the process of making redundancies and closures this year. Actually, I make it 44. And my own intel suggests that plenty more are to come in the coming months.

Although it never added the caveat “unless their lack of sustainability is caused by our failures”, when the government was getting the Higher Education and Research Bill through parliament, it said that providers are “responsible for ensuring their own financial sustainability”.

It said that it should not fall to government or the new Office for Students (OfS) to bail out failing institutions or micro-manage the consequences – its objective was to ensure that providers put in place clear and robust plans that will protect students if a course cannot be fully delivered.

It also said it wanted students to be “reassured that they will not be left exposed” if their chosen course or institution got into trouble, through “adequate, appropriate and consistent protection for students” – by expecting providers to make contingency plans to guard against the risk that “courses cannot be delivered as agreed”.

In other words, redundancies and closures were part of the plan – albeit not necessarily a plan that involved 37 (44) universities in England all enacting them in a single academic year (with plenty of others engaging in quiet recruitment freezes). It was a plan that was at least to be accompanied by protection for students.

Cause I couldn’t see it coming

Looking across the “current” Student Protection Plans of the 37 (44) universities in England listed on that QM UCU page, you’d be forgiven for thinking that all is well in UK HE finances. About half of those plans – which are supposed to include a “current” assessment of the risk to continuation of study – are dated prior to 2023. Just under a third seem to pre-date the pandemic. And most open by describing their universities’ finances then – not now.

One, in a university that announced to the press that its finances are under growing pressure from the continued freeze in the home undergraduate tuition fee, “volatility in international student recruitment”, and additional pension costs and high inflation, has an SPP that opens by saying that it has “bucked the national trend” demonstrating “high demand and consistent growth”. The university has, it says, reported a financial surplus every year for a decade – referring its readers to its 2016-17 financial statements.

Another, whose SPP (covering 2021-24) says that the risk that it would close or suspend a course of study during the period of the plan is “low”, announced that it will close courses in nine areas in February.

One that announced the closure of a campus last month doesn’t evaluate campus closure risk, despite OfS saying that the plan should. Another, dated 2020, says that the risk that it is unable to run whole courses is “low”, despite having announced the closure of three this year. Another, that says that the risk that the university will cease to deliver in “complete subject areas” is low, announced a whole-subject area closure last month.

There is simply no way that the “current” assessment of risk to a university’s finances, campuses, courses or material components of those courses can match the internal risk analysis of those universities. Yet despite OfS making clear that the risk analysis should be up to date and honest, it doesn’t seem to be enforcing those requirements.

I doubt the descriptions of risk in many SPPs even match OfS’ own internal risk assessment of each provider given the reportable events it must have and its analysis of universities’ accounts and finances. But they’re all still there. “Live”.

One university has a webpage that says its plan “is based on our assessment of our risk profile in relation to the continuation of study as at October 2020”. It has closed two departments this year and reduced staff in multiple others.

Some universities have been worried that publishing the realities in their SPPs might “expose” areas of risk that they would not want to be exposed. But OfS says that universities need to be transparent for applicants and students about the risks that are reasonably likely to occur, and the measures a university will put in place if any of these risks do crystallise.

Maybe last summer – at a notional annual review point – the 37 (44) universities did not consider the risk that international recruitment declines at the tail end of an immigration-obsessed government would materialise, or could cause some of its provision to become unviable. Really? When OfS was talking about a sector-wide “over-reliance” on international students?

OfS says that providers are supposed to evaluate the likelihood of not being able to deliver one or more courses to students, “particularly” if course closures are “likely in the next three years”. Barely any of the universities that have announced course closures indicates anything other than a “low risk” that that will happen in the “live” SPP.

A pocketful of dreams

An up-to-date and honest analysis of risk to the continuation of study matters, because in a “risk based” environment, the bigger the risk, the more detailed the plan is supposed to be:

We expect more detailed plans from providers with a higher risk of significant changes or closure. Those with lower risk may have a less detailed plan.

Yet some SPPs on the list don’t cover any of the eight risks to continuation of study that OfS says they should cover at all. Some conveniently miss out course or material component closure. Some don’t evaluate the risk – only offering up in general terms what they’ll do if the risk crystallises. And I can’t find any that meaningfully “consider, as a minimum, the possible different needs of students sharing particular protected characteristics”.

One university that announced a campus closure last month has an SPP that doesn’t mention the word campus once. Another seeking to make more than 100 staff redundant only discusses the “unanticipated departure or unavailability” of some staff, adding that “members of staff engaged in course delivery will occasionally leave the university at short notice”. It doesn’t clarify that that might be because up to 100 of them are being let go.

One describes the risk of recruitment falling as low because its financial planning systems have been assessed by HEFCE as satisfactory. HEFCE was dissolved in 2018. Another refers students on partnership provision to the partner’s SPPs – despite some of those not partners not being regulated by OfS and so not having an SPP.

Even finding SPPs has been difficult, despite requirements that they are published in a “clear and accessible way” and are “regularly reviewed”. No, as a prospective student I don’t have a university login.

And you hurt me this way

Of course one of the problems is the way in which a university might be interpreting and defining a “risk to the continuation of study”. If your standard position is “when we close a course we always teach it out”, you may be attempting to argue that that position means there is no meaningful risk.

Hence a number of plans don’t evaluate the risk of course closure, they evaluate “the risk that the closure of courses will prevent students from continuing their studies”. And so it’s almost always low. That makes no sense given other guidance – a student is supposed to be able to see what a university will do if it closes a course – but it appears to be the position in many SPPs.

In plenty of others standard and vague commitments on teach-out don’t cover all the ways in which teach out can (and often does) go wrong. Staff may leave, class sizes may dwindle, quality assurance may go out of the window and any warm body may be brought into deliver the increasingly core modules.

But given OfS has no meaningful monitoring in place for the experience of students who watch their programme go into sharp decline once teach-out is announced, how would it know?

One way in which SPPs are supposed to protect students is where a university is no longer able to deliver a “material component” of a programme – so that if something major stops running that you based a decision to choose that programme at that university on, the SPP covers it.

The problem is that OfS has never properly defined “material”, so many providers don’t mention it at all. Others take the list of items to include in “material information” from the Competition and Markets Authority’s (CMA) advice for higher education providers and end up only protecting “core modules” – despite lots of the redundancy rounds representing something much more material.

Hence one university says the risk is low because it protects “learning outcomes”, as if that’s the same. Lots define “material components” as core modules only. Some say the risk is low because its programmes are delivered by teams of academic staff. Whose aren’t?

Pretty much no-one covers the other aspects of the university experience that a student might have considered to be material when choosing that university. Another says the risk is low because it has quality assurance arrangements to monitor educational provision. Oh. That’s OK then.

Even if a student was to argue that the changes they were being expected to experience were “material”, plenty of providers have clauses that amount to allowing a student to leave without penalty. Yet OfS has said that the difficulties involved in transferring from one institution to another raise important questions about whether it is fair in law for a provider to make such changes in the first place. That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t being unilaterally imposed.

Such a fool to believe

Back when DfE was getting the Higher Education and Research Bill through parliament, it said that SPPs should be “accessible, transparent and explicitly made known to students”. In many cases, that’s just not happening.

It also said that it was “committed to upholding the reputation of the sector” as well as “minimising any impact on government finances”. It’s hard to conclude that that’s happening either.

It also said that if there were wider economic changes that dramatically affected the sustainability of many providers, OfS would review its regulation of individual providers, with particular regard to student protection plans:

It may find that in order to retain the same level of protection for students, changes are required. The OfS would then work with providers to improve their student protection plans so that they remained strong, deliverable, and in service of the student interest.

As far back as 2018’s Wonkfest, OfS Chair Michael Barber was critical of the SPPs submitted by providers as part of the registration process, suggesting that more would be required of providers in the future to set out more detail in plans, with clearer expressions of risk and better mitigations for students to ensure that they could complete their studies. Promised revised guidance never came – and Condition C3 in the regulatory framework remains untouched.

Some plans have been updated recently – and I can see some evidence of revisions on sections on overall provider sustainability. But generally from a student point of view, the basics have never been consistently applied, the improvements in response to change are not being delivered, and students are left woefully under-protected in most of the announced changes being announced as a result.

OfS told me that its work and requirements on protecting students’ interests needs to be viewed in the context of its overall approach – which has evolved since 2019 with the introduction of condition C4 and its partnership with National Trading Standards (neither of which we’ve ever seen any meaningful reporting on).

Condition C4 allows OfS to intervene more quickly when it considers there is a material risk that a registered provider may cease to provide higher education – and it can require providers to produce plans which outline how they will protect students in these circumstances, including a thorough assessment of the risk mitigations.

But therein lies the problem. If OfS places a focus on provider survival, it’s bound to be turning a blind eye to all the ways in which students’ interests might be harmed in the process of surviving. Some will argue that OfS enforcing its (and CMA’s) requirements on ensuring students get what they were promised, and ensuring that they are protected if they don’t, will make it even harder to them to, in OfS CEO Susan Lapworth’s words, consider:

…radical options for transformation, new business models and different ways of doing things.

Those “radical” options for transformation, new business models and different ways of doing things often mean that student’s course as they were offered it is no longer going to be delivered. But it may well be that a focus on the former is being traded off against any look at the latter.

Didn’t I treat you right

Some will argue that students (and especially their representatives) should understand that the financial system underpinning the sector are such that these sorts of changes and reductions in delivery are inevitable. But that argument expects students to accept the collectivising of risk when they’ve been expected to individualise their contribution. It doesn’t change the fact that they have been promised something that they’re now not going to get.

Yes, I’ve focussed on England here. Neither Scotland nor NI has any such “protection”, and we don’t know the circumstances under which CTER in Wales will require an SPP of its financially beleaguered sector. But it’s hardly as if a minister or regulator will push on individual protection if it makes it more likely that universities will fail on their watch in the run up to an election.

Maybe – given the headlines – you might expect the CMA to be interested (it does have a UK-wide remit) and be doing some enforcement. But just as it did little during the pandemic, and did little in each of the strikes, it’s hard to believe that it will do anything other than assume that this is all education’s problem, rather than its.

And yes, much of this is about students as “consumers” and “consumer” protection law. I don’t think that students are always consumers any more than I think their academic staff are “providers”. But what this is all supposed to do is ensure that promises to students – that with their efforts can result in success – are kept. It just isn’t working.

Back in England, for pretty much the whole of its existence, OfS has been promising work on the protection that students deserve to receive what they were promised by their provider when they chose their course. It was promised (yet) again just a few weeks ago. But if it does ever happen, it may well be too late.

Whether a deliberate strategy or not, the promises of protection made to students by the government, the Office for Students and the Competition and Markets Authority are not being met. Many universities aren’t telling the truth to students about risks to students, and many appear to be being allowed to break promises based on a woeful lack of enforcement.

In another world, OfS would be crawling all over the issue. It would be publishing scenarios in the same sort of detail that it’s affording to free speech. It would be pointing out publicly that the SPP regime as envisaged was designed for the odd challenger provider getting into trouble – not most of the mainstream sector in a single year. It would be interrogating how cuts and closures have panned out so far. It would be responding to the financial sustainability analysis it says it’s doing by bearing down on up-to-date plans.

It would be telling DfE that providers can’t meaningfully meet their obligations to students and that without even transitional help, the problem is going to get worse. It would be saying that just as higher education is not an endeavour that can be expanded at the rate that it has been, it can’t be contracted at the rate that is now either.

But all of that isn’t what government wants to hear, is it? And OfS won’t want the blame, will it? Especially when government seems to want the sector to cut its cloth, get smaller, and experience a dose of austerity.

Given OfS won’t allow institutions to publish up to date plans unless it has approved them first, I’ve even heard of cases suggesting that getting that approval can take months (and in at least one case over a year) – so even if providers wanted to be more timely and transparent, they often can’t be:

Dear prospective student. Well done for finding this page! In our student protection plan we describe the risk that a course will close as low. But we actually think it’s moderate. Your regulator won’t allow us to publish an updated version of the plan until it has approved it. That clear?

Of course it is the case that the damage being done – to subject availability, morale, reputation and support is hard to forgive. The impact on staff is deeply damaging, and the wider impacts on communities and regions will take years to unpick. And I don’t simplistically blame universities or their management teams for doing (nor not doing) what they’re doing (or not doing). These are exceptionally tough times, and I expect most of these decisions are the least worst thing to do on a given day or in a given meeting.

But as the wreckage is contemplated, we should spare a thought too to the students who were never warned, promised protection, and will spend 40 (rather than 30) years paying – most paying much more for much less.

Taken as a whole, the situation students find themselves in is outrageous. Any new government should step in to own the problem that its predecessor has created, apologise, offer at the very least a proper financial cushion, and cause the panoply of regulators that are supposed to be protecting students’ interests to actually do their job.

7 responses to “Are students being protected from course cuts and closures?

  1. A DfE/OfS policy to leave financially stretched institutions to sort out their own cashflow is likely to lead to quick sales of assets (often property) to generate cash needed to pay staff, pay bill and fund redundancies. Governing bodies and leadership teams organise this but their primary accountability is to the bank providing them with short term support. OfS has lots of regulatory tools but some of these might compound a provider’s difficulties (fines, publication of information etc) leaving it heckling from the sidelines until it provides a short term loan and asks for something in return.

  2. The student-consumer is badly let down by the woeful lack of enforcement of his/her consumer protection rights under the Consumer Rights Act 2015.

    The ‘HE industry’ has no credible leadership from the UUK in the way that some industries are proactive in relation to consumer law; and the supposed watch-dogs are sleepy: OfS, CMA, OIA.

    Only the ASA has any decent track record of protecting the student interest by calling out Us that cheat in their advertising.

    The CMA’s guidance to HE from 2015 has been totally ignored; its reissue of such in 2023 is probably due the same fate.

    -The NUS has failed to do its job of delivering for students and Which? seems to have given up on HE.

    We urgently need litigation that clarifies just how the CRA15 applies to Us’ marketing of and delivery of degree courses and how the Us’ fuzzy one-sided U-S (trader-consumer) contracts are to be interpreted – and enforced.

    I fear we may have to wait a long time…

  3. I was working at a post-92 until this time last year. We built a small and successful department of ~10 staff offering a modern programme of quite wide-ranging options that weren’t being offered at “traditional” research universities nor “technical” training colleges. We recruited really well for domestic UG, secured a top 25% REF place, and had great NSS. We we were destroyed through 2 years of various restructures to save other parts of the school that were flailing. There’s only 1 staff member left, and the choice and specifics of the degree have been destroyed. I am glad to be out, but I am heartbroken for the students who came to us based on the degree we were offering and will now be left with one or two years of generic “core module 2” teaching with whatever staff from the university they can find to teach it.

  4. The underlying problem is that the consumer may have once paid an appropriate price to the provider, but no longer is this the case for Home UGs. Given cost inflation and the lack of price flexibility, whatever promises are given by the provider 3-4 years in advance are unlikely to be deliverable in many cases. This isn’t fair on students, but equally the price was set 12 years ago (bar one small rise in 2017) and so isn’t appropriate either now for HEIs. The inevitable reality is that quality is compromised, and this will continue until/unless a higher price is paid to HEIs by fees and/or taxation. What other service providers are expected to deliver improving services for a price fixed a decade-plus prior to delivery?

  5. I loath to see students as consumers but if this is to be the case, then consumers need to be able to vote with their feet and switch universities as easily as it is to switch gyms. One doesn’t leave the progress you’ve made at the last gym when you move on to the next. Transferring between different providers should be much, much easier with the credits you gained also transferring seamlessly.

    And the current regulatory bodies are about as useful to students as HR is useful to employees. They are there to protect the organisations and not students/employees.

    1. This (easier transfer) option has advantages and may have merit in some areas, but I don’t think it is workable for the many (especially but not exclusively STEM) subjects where learning is highly incremental, with teaching in later years dependent on prerequisite technical knowledge from earlier years. I fear freedom to change institution in these subjects could be achieved only with the imposition of a national curriculum per subject, and that has more downsides and pitfalls than I have time to list…..

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