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Good news for the student rights let out of a (mixed) bag

After Jo Johnson's speech this week, Jim Dickinson applauds the return of charters and some signs that OfS could deal students a fairer hand of cards.
This article is more than 6 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

My measure of an HE minister’s pronouncements is always “how much has it wound up the HE sector”, and on the basis of the reaction to this week’s speech by Jo Johnson at the Reform thinktank, it could well be that students have good reason to be cheerful.

Teaching intensity

The announcement that will doubtless generate the most ire across HE is that a metric on teaching intensity is to be piloted. Survey after survey of students reveal concerns about contact hours, with HEPI’s expectation report last month the latest to highlight the issue. Ministers have been trying to crack this nut for years to no avail.

So the pilot proposal – a clever mixture of a hard formula on hours and class sizes, coupled with a softer metric on student survey data about “getting what I need”, is exciting. It’s still nowhere when it comes to looking at actual quality (or indeed any qualifications held by an actual teacher), but for students who think we ought to at least have a crack at measuring the tuition you get for your fee, it’s great news.

Return of the charters

I think I was probably a junior HE wonk before I even applied to university, and I remember vividly the early 90s when John Major’s government (also with a precarious majority and riven by European splits) launched its Citizen’s Charter initiative.

The HE bit promised that students would get “clear, accurate and enforceable” information about “courses, quality, accommodation and facilities”- but the sector’s unending (and highly skilled) ability to water down promises to students into vague pleasantries ensued.

Similarly, Labour had a try back in the late noughties, with its Student Charters initiative gently advising HEIs to set out respective expectations for students and universities. Most HEIs duly developed one, but as with the Tories’ try in the 90s, ended up getting away with watering them down into something so vague as to be utterly unenforceable.

All of which makes this week’s announcement on potential mandatory contract content so tantalising. I’ve written before about the failure of a tuition ‘fee’ to define the product that is being supplied, and so the Minister’s suggestion that contracts should include detail on “resources, contact, assessment, support and other important aspects” should be good news for those students that feel cheated by the glittery open days and fancy brochures.

Of course, setting out the expectations and standards is one thing and enforcing them is another. Even with OIA’s efforts and the CMA’s intervention, too few students know their rights, and for those that do, too many never get near proper redress. Students in traditional HE have their students’ union that may or may not be funded to help, but those in the emergent private sector without that tradition are left dangerously exposed.

Whatever OfS does on contract content, it would do well to consider how to strengthen the hand of students when taking on their institution which will so often hold all the cards.

There were other nuggets in the speech. Employment outcomes appearing in TEF is helpful, but LEO will only appear in year three of institutional level TEF (and so much later at subject level), and given the lag on institutional change showing up in LEO data and its pointlessness at anything other than aggregate subject level, it will take until my seven-year-old daughter applies to uni for this to make a difference.

And cracking on with a proper pilot of subject level TEF across 35 subject groups is also good news for those of us that think institutional averages hide pockets of poor provision. That it’s to be a “closed, developmental” pilot is disappointing, but it’s certainly one in the eye for those who hoped to kick the whole idea into the long grass.

Value for money?

It wasn’t all good news. Given the focus on value for money, to not have addressed the spiralling cost of student accommodation is disappointing. DfE is still sitting on unreleased Student Income and Expenditure research from 2014/15 that could be published and work could be done with DCLG on the buy-to-let landlords and others that are squeezing ever more from students’ pockets. A lack of real action of vice chancellor pay was similarly disappointing.

It also remains the case that the levers to strengthen students’ hands remain curiously individualised. OfS can design all the metrics it likes, but speeding up timetable release for students with kids, increasing social learning space as a university expands or securing appropriate sports facilities for disabled students won’t come from TEF metrics.

It’s well funded and supported student representatives leaning on institutional actors that can make the difference on a multitude of issues, and it would be helpful if Jo Johnson and the emerging OfS started to recognise rather than ignore this reality.

But I like to take my student rights wherever I can find them. Broadband providers rightly get hammered when their “average” speed claims are hampered in your house by poor contention rates on your street, yet the sector’s willingness to plaster TEF Gold stickers (and associated student experience boasts) over their open days goes unchecked. Subject Level TEF and clearer contracts will help both choosers and HE users get what they’re being sold, and improve practice at something closer to students’ experience in a large HEI.

There’s clear political uncertainty ahead which could affect the shape of the higher education landscape. But history tells us that even if Labour wins and restores free education (for home undergraduates) and the market is changed utterly again, once you start measuring what students care about, and once enforceable promises are made, you can’t put the student rights cat back in the bag.

2 responses to “Good news for the student rights let out of a (mixed) bag

  1. Any evidence on offer for the many claims in this article? As someone with excellent student evaluations, graduate outcomes, and awards for teaching excellence, the idea that I can’t make a professional decision to alter what and how I teach to respond to student interests and developments in the discipline worry me greatly. None of the modules I taught ran the same year to year, and none ran according to plan. That’s not because I was ‘breaking promises’ – my promise to students is to excite them, to inspire them, to help them develop a deep and long lasting interest in the subject, and to set them up for a fulfilling career. None of that would be captured in the things you list as ‘rights’. In my experience the only students who ever complain about ‘value for money’ are the ones who seem to think tuition fees make them a customer rather than an active participant. ‘Tuition fees’ do not just pay for contact time. And the proposed formula for calculating contact time completely miss informal aspects of the experience – the drop ins, the guest lectures, the evening seminars, the conferences, the emails, the tweets…

    The proposals negate all that and reduce our interaction with students to pre-planned sessions regardless of actual need. I cannot predict ahead of time to the detail being demanded the types of contact students need. I’m a professional. I know what I’m doing. Where is ‘trust’ in all of this? I do not lie awake at night wondering how I can waste my students’ time. I lie awake at night wondering how I can help them achieve great things and make themselves, their families, and me, proud. And that means being creative, being responsive, and being adaptive. What you call ‘rights’ I call a guarantee of a poor experience. But boxes ticked, so everything must be good!

    I went through all the teaching I’ve done over the past nearly two decades and asked myself what I would have to stop doing to avoid censure under these proposals. The answer is most of it. If you think that means I must be a bad teacher, or not have my students’ best interests at heart… well I’d love to introduce you to several generations of graduates who would be happy to put you right.

  2. The idea of a framework contract was conceived, in part by me, because students were signing up on admission to a whole raft of regulations, policies and procedures with no clue as to what they were committing themselves to. In no way was it ever intended to interfere with freedom of teaching. In its latest form it can be found in the 2012 edition of The Law of Higher a Education (OUP). I think the debate on exactly what is meant by a student contract must be wide-ranging.

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