Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

You may have missed this at the weekend, but a fresh salvo in the in-person teaching wars was fired by Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi that it’s worth taking a bit of notice of.

Repeating the “no excuses for online teaching” line, on Saturday he told told The Times that universities will have to tell students “exactly” how much face-to-face teaching they will get before they start their degrees:

The education secretary will challenge vice-chancellors to give school-leavers detailed data, broken down by course, before they commit and pay for degrees and accommodation, rather than setting out vague intentions.

At this stage I can already picture eyes rolling to the back of the head en masse across the sector, which will likely respond on social media by arguing either that the pandemic isn’t over, or by suggesting that he doesn’t understand the benefits of blended learning.

But I wouldn’t be quite so dismissive this time – because there is some evidence that this is about to manifest as something that the standard press lines and briefings won’t be able to bat away.

Suddenly and we were on the moon

Ever since Gavin Williamson gave VCs a lecture on Zoom at the start of the academic year, the standard line from the sector has been that online complements rather than replaces face to face provision. The problem is that in various parts of the sector that line simply hasn’t held up for a student comparing a timetable from January 2020 and now – and Zahawi has rumbled it:

There are a number of universities that have got it right with the proportion of in-person teaching and using online learning during the pandemic. Putting in-person lectures online so students can catch up, that is good. Just doing online isn’t.

Similarly, another consistent line from the sector is that delivering an effective blended programme can be just if not more expensive than delivering in-person. That might be true in some ways – but in the long term we all know that the prospect of broadcasting components without the physical numbers constraints of lecture theatres offers a way of coping with a freeze in fees, and in the short term we all know that lots of universities who over-recruited during this year’s Examnishambles couldn’t fit students into lecture theatres this year if they tried. Zahawi has rumbled all this too:

Universities can’t use blended learning as an excuse to cut costs and to take away from students’ experiences. We’ve lifted restrictions on in-person learning. There should be no universities using Covid guidance as a cost-cutting exercise.

Another line has been that universities are merely responding to what students want. But when I look at the surveys and evidence that is out there, on balance he’s probably right when he says:

I promise you they want face-to face education. You can enhance face-to-face with technology, eg putting instant messenger on lecturers’ screens so they can see questions live [but] we’re in a world with no restrictions. Most universities are doing the right thing. I want the minority that aren’t to get back and do this.

Sunrise shine in the midnight sky

Where this all starts to move from a few throwaway lines for the press and into the realm of actual policy is Zahawi’s proposed solutions. The “make a complaint” line gets a fresh airing, and the “I’ll do a ring round of VCs” strategy of ministers cosplaying Anne Robinson on Watchdog makes a re-appearance:

Any cases like this, I’d like to hear about them. I will pick up the phone myself to universities. I’m a great believer in the power of persuasion… Michelle Donelan has been picking up the phone to vice-chancellors where there have been concerns. We will continue to do that.”

But he also revived an agenda that we thought had long-since disappeared – consumer signalling:

I’m going to ask universities to publish the breakdown of the proportion of face-to-face learning before the student goes to university. Most students only get their timetable after they’ve paid for their accommodation, when it’s too late. I don’t see any reason why universities can’t publish the proportion of face-to-face learning for each course at each university. Nothing beats data and transparency. That’s something I will be saying to vice-chancellors.”

The policy theory here is two-pronged. The Times reports that Zahawi is keen that school-leavers get detailed data, broken down by course, before they commit and pay for degrees and accommodation, “rather than setting out vague intentions”. That’s a direct response to the fact that students can only really complain about what they’ve experienced against what’s been promised – he wants the promises to be crunchier.

It’s also about the old marketisation idea that students (and their families) who can see information of this sort (and are in a position to shop around) will make better choices, and the idea that provision feature comparison tools can be developed that encourage positive competition.

Heaven called and all the angels sang

As such, three aspects of this are potentially very interesting.

The first is that the irony of Zahawi’s position on this is that on one level he’s calling for something that should already be happening. As I covered in detail back in August on the site, in its 2015 guidance, the Competition and Markets Authority includes the following in its list of what it expects students will have been provided with up front:

Information about the composition of the course and how it will be delivered, and the balance between the various elements, such as the number and type of contact hours that students can expect (for example, lectures, seminars, work placements, feedback on assignments), the expected workload of students (for example the expected self-study time), and details about the general level of experience or status of the staff involved in delivering the different elements of the course.”

Even in the context of the pandemic, the Office for Students (which in theory in England ensures that providers read and implement that guidance) then re-interpreted that as:

Notwithstanding the significant uncertainty regarding the impact of coronavirus, providers will need to be clear about (for example) the extent to which teaching may be delivered online rather than face-to-face in the event of further disruption.

Students will need to understand what a provider is committing to deliver in normal circumstances and in different scenarios, how this will be achieved, and the changes that might need to be made in response to changing public health advice.

Sufficient information needs to be provided to allow prospective students to make an informed decision about whether they are willing to start a course and accept those possible adjustments or whether they would prefer to defer until the provider is able to deliver the course as normal, or whether they might choose a different course or different provider.

If Zahawi is worried that promises are being made that are so vague as to be unenforceable, the message he’s sending to OfS is “get your act together on consumer protection law enforcement”. And as we know, at the moment OfS is in ”how high” mode whenever ministers say jump – evidenced by OfS Chair James Wharton’s views on in-person in the Sunday Telegraph:

There is no excuse for universities imposing stronger restrictions than the Government requires. They should be looking to get back to normal – whether that’s with face-to-face teaching or organising proper graduations as students should be able to expect.”

Remember- buried in OfS’ strategy draft we saw:

Proposals for the information providers should give to students choosing what and where to study, fair contractual terms, and complaint-handling arrangements.

So let’s expect a crack of the whip on that one in any forthcoming ministerial guidance letter.

For once in my lifetime I was finally free

The second interesting aspect is where this could all go for the purposes of public information. In the early part of the last decade the then universities minister David Willetts regularly dreamed of universities having to be clear about the number of contact hours that were on offer to address the moaning he was getting form backbenchers with bored nieces and nephews at university, and included this line in 2012’s Students at the heart of the system white paper as a result:

We expect that the new Unistats website will be in place in September 2012. The website will enable prospective students to compare information on a course by course basis, such as previous students’ satisfaction, professional body accreditation, graduate employment destinations and salary. It will also link to more detailed information for each course, such as content, module options and hours of study.

That was batted off by the sector eventually, but did re-emerge in the form of a potential Teaching Excellence Framework metric announced (but later dropped as unworkable) by Jo Johsnon in 2017:

I can confirm that we will be piloting a new TEF metric that relates directly to one important aspect of value for money: the teaching intensity a student experiences. This will look at the contact hours students receive, including the class sizes in which they are taught.”

Universities largely thought they had seen off contact hours as a metric to be gathered, published and competed over – but maybe not. Data is not collected on contact hours at a sector level, and it barely exists at provider level – seminars are extended or rescheduled, lectures combined or cancelled, and course delivery plans change on a year to year (or even term to term) basis. Any attempt to publish nationally comparable, up-to-date, valid, data would drill an enormous whole through the one aspect of regulation where DfE has made a tangible difference – burden reduction. It would also mean rethinking Data Futures again, something which seems to happen on a quarterly basis anyway, but still would be fairly embarrassing.

If something simple did have to be put into DiscoverUni, there would be a nervousness about the press (deliberately) misunderstanding the whole idea of independent study – endlessly printing stories about Mickey Mouse courses “with only four hours teaching a week” in the same way that we’re getting daily trigger warnings stories now. In the old days of the Key Information Set nearly every datapoint was accompanied by a lengthy (and seldom red) explanatory caveat from the provider. Clearly a regulator in thrall to ministerial whim won’t be making a system wide case for independent learning – but is it really sensible for every registered provider to have their own version?

So again, let’s expect a crack of the whip on gathering and publishing data on contact hours in a comparable form in a forthcoming ministerial guidance letter.

And you gave that to me

As well as all that, the final aspect that should fascinate us is that the comments – and the way in which they may develop into a real policy agenda – mark something of a return to worrying about provision itself. When OfS was set up I worked on two bits of national research (on student perceptions of value and teaching excellence) that told us that while outcomes were important, it was the provision itself that really mattered to students.

Since then ministers and regulators have largely ignored those findings, focusing instead on drop-out and jobs. Given much of the higher education sector right now would argue that universities are only partially responsible for outcomes and it’s the provision that they can control, I suspect that it would be a spectacular own goal to respond to ministers’ interest in it by telling them they’re wrong about that too.

One response to “Contact hours return as a concern for ministers keen to respond to students

  1. Ideologies aside, I wonder if the weakness in marketisation is more about the “customers” than the “providers”. When you say “In the old days of the Key Information Set nearly every datapoint was accompanied by a lengthy (and seldom red) explanatory caveat from the provider”, I suspect it was not only the caveats that were seldom read. Do we have data to show the usage of DiscoverUni?

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