Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You’re a third year undergraduate. Your degree – which has a series of practical components – has been plagued with disruption, first by industrial action, and latterly by the pandemic.

For the past year or so those practical components have been increasingly postponed. They matter to you – for your employment path, your confidence and for your learning outcomes.

It’s not just practical “teaching” and practical “assessment”, as the Office for Students (OfS) has framed it.

It’s the stuff you produce for summative assessment – and the time you spend hanging out in the studio, or the lab, or on the field trip at the oxbow lake.

Making changes

As I noted over on Wonk corner, QAA is now advising universities on steps they could take to address this “practical component” gap as follows:

  • In terms of course intended learning outcomes, reviewing whether students really need to demonstrate (or demonstrate further) the specified skills to achieve an award in a particular subject and/or whether they need to demonstrate them in the way prescribed.
  • Offering the students an alternative qualification that acknowledges the alternative theoretical emphasis of the course rather than a practical one. This might require emergency modifications and/or course design and development activity if an appropriate alternative does not exist already, as well as requiring close communication with, and consent of, the participating students.
  • Supporting deferrals/interruptions of studies if that is a student’s preference
  • Offering students opportunities to return in the future, including post-graduation, to gain additional experience using specialist equipment or facilities that will enable consolidation and support them in specialist professions.
  • Separating the elements that relate primarily to PSRB recognition from those that are necessary for the integrity of the academic award so that the latter is prioritised for graduation and the opportunity to achieve PSRB recognition is enabled subsequently.

The first thing I thought when I saw this was – why are providers only developing some of the answers here now? Has the 2nd wave and this lockdown come as a massive surprise? I guess the argument is that nobody could have predicted how badly the pandemic would be handled last summer, but I’m afraid I disagree – although even properly warning students wouldn’t have made it safe to fling open studios and labs this month.

But when I read it I was also transported back to a small room between two floors of a converted victorian house on the Holloway Road. Indulge me for a minute.

Memories

John Offord was the National Union of Students’ Further Education Policy Officer in the 2000s, and latterly went to work at UCU. I worked at NUS for much of his tenure and spent entire days with John in the smoking room at NUS headquarters on Holloway Road.

It was an extraordinary experience. John had a deep commitment to education (and the idea that it is co-produced, both individually and collectively), and there were hours of railing against injustice – watching marketisation and an obsession with outcomes fail in FE, and listening to his powerful conversions of student casework into education policy proposals.

His respect and support for student officers was inspirational. He was never obsequious – and always focussed on challenging them to deepen their understanding and grow their confidence to intervene in education. And he had a legendary indifference to pomposity and hubris – from ministers, college principals, and both NUS management and the officers he supported.

I’ve been reminded of him partly because retiring Birmingham Vice Chancellor David Eastwood has been calling for A Level reform, arguing that we should introduce a Standardized Assessment Test (SAT) for university admission, and replace A-levels with a diploma system – which Eastwood notes was extensively developed in the Tomlinson Review of 14-19 qualifications back in 2004.

The policy issue that John was most involved in and most gutted about was this – the review had featured deep and genuine student engagement, proposing a 14-19 diploma that would have cleverly integrated vocational and academic pathways. Ruth Kelly and Tony Blair’s cowardly shelving of the proposals in the face of opposition from A levels traditionalists has arguably left us in the mess we’re in now.

It’s also always worth noting that the review had been called in response to allegations that A Level grades had been manipulated by some exam boards in order to maintain a consistent standard – a scandal that led to the resignation of the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills Estelle Morris. There were different thresholds for resignations back then.

But I’m also reminded of John for this other reason. One of his best and most meandering stories concerned a group of students that had somehow managed to contact him in February 1997 from a Further Education College in Thame. For all of the FE sector’s “learner engagement” policies, individual independent advocacy for students is in short supply, so John used to take on some casework for FE students in his spare time.

And those students, working with John, went on to launch and win a “landmark” case on student consumer rights that has major potential implications now.

Skills for jobs

Rycotewood College was established in Thame in the late 1930s by philanthropist Cecil Michaelis as a school dedicated to developing skilled craftsmen. It was an institution that ministers would champion now – providing a mixture of theoretical and practical education, offering hands-on experience in industry.

In the 1990s, before it merged with City of Oxford College, it was offering some higher education qualifications – and one of its courses was a Higher National Diploma in historical vehicle restoration/conservation. Classic cars, basically.

The problem is that it was an example of what John used to call “unit farming”. This was a phenomenon where spare module capacity in a college would be strung together to make a course – all hung off a couple of specialist modules where students got to actually restore old cars.

The trouble was that at some point the specialists doing that bit disappeared and weren’t replaced. Famously one of the students who had taken apart their car suddenly found that nobody at the college actually knew how to put it back together again.

I have some of John’s handwritten notes from when the students originally approached NUS in 1997, and they are fabulous:

Principal has written to the students to say that as far as the college is concerned, they have not had any formal complaint at all. XX went on to elaborate on the College version of events: they have done everything that the students have asked, and have also recently had a meeting with them, at which only one student turned up. This caused XX some hollow laughter, as the management had asked the students to nominate one representative for this meeting!”

The process of slowing down the complaint, insisting on particular policies being followed, gaslighting over what students should have been “reasonably” expecting and making minor offers throughout the process will be familiar to many a student complainant.

Deal or no deal

At one stage John records an offer made informally by the college of a fees discount, but then the student refused to take the deal:

I then phoned XXX, reported all this to him, and his view was that repayment of fees was not enough: he had given up a £14K p.a. job to do the course, had £2,000 – worth of student loan debt and the prospect of a worthless qualification. He, and the others, want to try for a legal opinion.

I was instantly reminded of this when I saw that QAA line suggesting that providers offer students an “alternative qualification” that acknowledges the “alternative theoretical emphasis” of the course rather than a practical one. Who are these students that enrol on practical courses for the… theory?

There’s more fascinating detail in the notes. In their first year students ended up doing three terms’ work in 2 terms, working a 40 week, because the course had started late. Naturally, they took a year’s worth of fees off the students’ LEAs, although one student asked their LEA to partially withhold the fees until the course improved – not something a student can do now with the Student Loans Company.

But some students were self-funding, and were furious that in the second year, their “contact hours” went from 40 to about 10 per week. Even given this, the second year still had part of the first years’ work to complete. Their point was – if they were only doing 10 “guided learning hours” per week, that was part-time, and students felt that charging “full time” fees was fraud.

The day in court

John’s notes trail off eventually, but at the other end of the process there’s a great write up of the case from David Palfreyman in Education and the Law from 2003.

In court, the college tried to argue that the requirements for the award had been met in the teaching and assessment. But the judge said that the practical content, which they legitimately expected to be substantial and good, was “low and poorly taught”. In other words, he reached decisions both about the quality and quantum of teaching – interesting in today’s context, where the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE) is allowed to consider the latter, but not the former.

The court awarded the six students who got that far £7,500 each for the loss of value of the course. The student with the bits of car got more. But fascinatingly, they also got £2,500 each for “mental distress” (4k each in today’s money).

The judge noted the students’ “acute annoyance, unhappiness and frustration” and noted another’s experience was “fraught, not pleasant and productive” – rather, it was “stressful and not enjoyable”. I wonder if there are any students who would say something similar today?

Pellucid dreams

And that’s the fascinating bit. Those who break a contract are not usually liable for any “distress, displeasure, vexation, tension or aggravation” that is caused by breaking it. But there are exceptions – contracts which are supposed to provide pleasure, relaxation and peace of mind. And the judge concluded the HE-student contract is supposed to provide just that:

It can pellucidly be appreciated that, for example, the assimilation of literature, history, art or philosophy should, and generally will, provide pleasure and relaxation as well as employment opportunity. So, too, no doubt, will mathematics and science, where an appreciation of the harmonies of numbers and the secrets of creation ought to provide limitless intellectual pleasure and satisfaction. The enjoyment of these pleasures is part of the purpose of university and many other educational courses.”

I’m not sure we would find many students who have found this year pleasurable or satisfying in the way the judge suggests there. Whose fault that is is perhaps a different question.

He also said:

These claimants did not have the pleasant and agreeable time that they had hoped for and legitimately expected at Rycotewood, and that for much of their time they were annoyed, anxious, angry, frustrated and disappointed that the course was not providing what it should have provided”.

All of which wheels us back around to the pandemic context we’re in. Has there been a breach of contract? If the “force majeure” clause can’t be used this far out from the start of the pandemic, and individual consent hasn’t been negotiated for changes, it certainly looks like it – especially in the scenarios that QAA is now advising on, and especially if they’re imposed on students rather than negotiated.

Righting the wrongs

Students are of course unlikely to know their rights to demand better than these solutions, and / or to obtain compensation. And I’m particularly worried that students will be offered some of QAA’s solutions and will feel massive pressure to agree – not least because there’s no clarity on who might fund some of the costs associated with solutions involving a return to campus or an extension to the year. Will there be maintenance support, for example?

The reality is that if every student being offered one of these solutions said “no” and demanded proper, funded extensions to the academic year, the sector would have to say the truth out loud – that hundreds of thousands of students can’t graduate meaningfully or fairly without a major cash injection. That would focus government minds.

Alternatively, the sector could admit that hundreds of thousands of students won’t be getting what they were promised, and haven’t obtained permission to change those promises – so hundreds of thousands of students can’t graduate meaningfully or fairly without a major cash injection. That would also focus government minds.

My fear is that instead solutions like those on the QAA list will be imposed on students who don’t want to cause a fuss or challenge the institution grading them, and everyone will muddle through. How miserable that students whose confidence and employment prospects that that will affect most, are also those that have the least sharp elbows with which to secure redress.

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