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Donelan strikes an uncertain chord at the Commons Education Committee

The Minister of State for Universities gave us a lot to think about in her accountability hearing at the Commons Education Committee. David Kernohan tries to find harmony.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

There was an odd recurring sound throughout Michelle Donelan’s appearance at the Commons Education Select Committee today.

In all honesty it sounded like a softly strummed guitar, an E major first inversion played with the root on the seventh fret. Those of you who know Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) will associate E major, in the western classical idiom at least, with “noisy shouts of joy” and “full delight”.

To say that the unexpected score to the hearing presented an ironic commentary on the minister’s responses would maybe be stretching things a bit. But there is a reason that I wanted to start off with a bit of musical analysis – the rest of the hearing was just more evidence that DfE is not on top of the situation when it comes to keeping students safe. And I think I can be excused a moment in a happier place before descending into that world once more.

The minister who couldn’t say

How many students have Covid-19? How many students are self-isolating? How will we ensure that tests are available to students? How will we get students safely home for Christmas (if the government defies convention and sticks to the terms of what it now describes as a “guarantee”)? Can students come home in the interim? Can we stop them if they want to?

Michelle Donelan did not know. And this is not an exhaustive list of the things Michelle Donelan did not know, as we will see.

Apsana Begum, for example, asked whether the Department for Education had commissioned any modelling on the reopening of campuses and their halls. SAGE minutes show that DfE did – but Donelan suggested it didn’t – or at best she didn’t know that it had done so.

There’s three ways you can work with universities as a minister – you can involve them in discussion (column 1), you can threaten legislation or financial penalties (column 2), or you can hide behind the idea of institutional autonomy (column 3). In this session it became clear that the first column applies only to complex problems that have an impact on public health, the second refers to “culture wars” posturing, and the third to student rights and student safety.

We’re still waiting for the guidance promised “imminently” last week on students returning home for Christmas – this is apparently coming and it will be accompanied by a “robust Q&A”. And this week will see the launch of a new DfE helpline, for anyone (staff or student) in HE concerned about Covid-19 in or around the university system. These are column one interventions – developed with the sector and regulator to address an identified need. It could fairly be argued that we should have had both of these a lot sooner, but as far as good news from this hearing goes you might want to stop reading here.

Your fault

Let’s shift to column three – the autonomy column. The ever impressive Fleur Anderson reported that staff at Roehampton University are unable to access postal testing kits, have no local testing centre (there are none in Wandsworth, oddly), and have been waiting up to three hours to report confirmed cases and tracing activity to the local health authority. Though Donelan did promise to look into this – this particular issue, to be clear, not why universities are having to deal with this in October – a reactive response to problems that should be addressed proactively is precisely the kind of thing she loves to tell universities off for. Anderson’s daughter currently has Covid-19 and is isolating in halls at the University of Leeds.

We learned that the reported seven hundred plus students with Covid at Northumbria apparently means only 200 in Newcastle, if other campuses in London and Holland are removed from the total. This is extraordinarily detailed information to have about an outbreak that looks almost like it might have warranted an earlier government intervention. And it makes one wonder again why ministers cannot answer basic questions like “how many students have a positive covid test” and “how many students are isolating”.

Ian Mearns asked a great question about the penalties students will face for dropping out through no fault of their own – noting that at St Andrews, if you want to withdraw definitively from your studies, you can do so without being liable for fees until 1 December 2020. Donelan just avoided answering, pointing to Scottish Government autonomy this time.

Sticking to Fleur and Roehampton, should universities like Roehampton not have access to additional funds to support changes in income due to circumstances beyond their control? The Minister dutifully listed off the usual suspects from July, but Anderson was interested in actual new real money – like universities have received in Scotland. This, again, is an autonomous matter. Universities have reserves they can draw on (at least we were clear that some of them may not), and if not we have the Restructuring Regime – which at least will ensure that they haven’t been spending all their money on SU liberation work (or “intersectional approaches” to student support, as the Office for Students would rebrand it when distributing the government’s money.)

The student experience

The misinformation continued to flow. As all students are not getting the in-person experience they would otherwise have expected, is there a case for a blanket partial refund? Well, only if the quality is not there (even if quality is not really a viable basis for a complaint) – and we are reassured that the Office for Students is actively monitoring this.

I can assure you that the Office for Students is not actively monitoring the student experience, partly because the government specifically designed it to not monitor higher education “outputs” at all – and, not only that, a recent edict from DfE suggests that the only way we have of monitoring the student experience (the NSS) is likely to be lost. Of course students can complain to the OfS (not really!) and they’ll draw up some kind of internal league table of courses (nope!) to see where they should intervene.

Autonomy, of course, means that universities could each independently decide to offer a fee refund if they wanted to – with the fatuous justification that DfE sets a maximum fee and not a minimum one.

David Johnson challenged the minister on student non-completion rates. He was told that this was a problem every year, and that DfE are unable to predict a rise in drop out rates. Which makes me wonder if they are making the right data requests of the Student Loans Company – who will already know many of the cases where students have left their course before fees loans become permanent. I’ve asked the SLC about this too, and am still waiting for an answer. I hope at least universities get this information, because it represents a potentially huge hole in their budgets as well as a massive waste of student opportunity and potential.

Next year

We’re expecting an announcement this year from the ever-impressive Gavin Williamson on arrangements for level 3 exams next year. Heavily trailed as a range of plans (A to C, which represents an increase of three over usual DfE standards) that could include predicted grades or moving exams back to allow for more teaching. This was something that Michelle Donelan did know – but she wouldn’t tell us for fear of stealing the Secretary of State’s thunder.

Well thank god for that. So thoughtful of the Minister not to deprive us of the raw visceral excitement of seeing Williamson attempt to sound statesmanlike at the despatch box. Sure, anxious students and parents will have to wait a little longer, but why leave them without the sheer theatre of the moment? Other than because it is a low priority occupation of course.

But Donelan did get her moment to shine too. Combating antisemitism in all parts of society is hugely important, and is an agenda that universities can and have signed up to. But last week the Jewish Chronicle reported that Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick was “extremely disappointed” that universities have ignored his request to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. Surely DfE should do something?

On this, Donelan made clear that she expects universities to adopt the IHRA definition and that the department is “now looking at other measures” to require them to do so.

But then Fleur Anderson raised the fact that only three universities ban intimate relationships between staff and students. There’s a clear potential for abuses of power and sexual misconduct. Again, surely DfE should do something? Only this time a different tone emerged:

It’s not something that we can intervene in. Of course we can urge in terms of best practice and we can work with sets of bodies to reiterate that, and also identify issues that we think are born out of those concerns”

Maybe a sector agency might write a report or something. Autonomy is lovely.

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