Can I see clearing now the rain has gone

OfS called for "absolute clarity" for applicants over what is on offer in September. Jim Dickinson asks if students can see the wood for the trees.

You’ll remember that three months ago, Office for Students (OfS) Chief Executive Nicola Dandridge said that even though “none of us know what’s going to be happening in the autumn”, nevertheless “the important thing here is absolute clarity to students so they know what they’re getting in advance of accepting offers.”

Three months is a long time in both politics and a pandemic, but it’s still not at all clear that any of us know what’s going to be happening in the autumn, and it’s still morally and legally important that students know what they’re being promised in advance of accepting offers. OfS Chair Michael Barber marked results day with the following advice for applicants:

Universities should set out as clearly as possible what prospective students can expect next term, particularly around how courses will be taught.

Why are you my clarity

We were warned. For the main chunk of undergraduate entry, the deadline for issuing “absolute clarity” over what to expect appeared in Paragraph 47 of OfS’ guidance for providers about student and consumer protection as follows:

Changes to material information should be drawn to the attention of applicants in a timely way so that applicants, whether or not they have already accepted an offer, may pursue other choices. For example, for prospective students planning to start undergraduate courses in September 2020-21, we would expect such information to be made available to them before confirmation and clearing in August 2020. For other students, information needs to be provided in order to inform decision making.

So notwithstanding that clearing has been open for a few weeks now, that we’re a week into the Scottish process and that students have already accepted thousands of unconditional offers – on the assumption that yesterday was the big deadline day, how did we do on the absolute clarity thing? I thought I’d spend the morning across the sector’s websites (and in some cases live chats) to find out.

Living in a material world

First let’s look at the specific things that – both morally and legally – students need to know. CMA guidance, later restated by OfS, looks at several aspects:

Content of the course.

If the modules, or other course components such as placements or field trips, that will be offered have now changed or reduced, OfS says this needs to be made clear. It’s probably fair to say that most providers have started by planning to not change course content so probably get a clean bill of health here. Similarly for course length.

That said, almost all course content pages are intact from the Before Times – a handful of universities have harder to find course level summaries of changes, most don’t. Maybe that’s because content hasn’t changed. But on a large number of courses, that’s not credible – I’ve struggled for example to find what must be anticipated changes to courses with field trips or industry placements beyond “we’ll do what’s safe at the time”.

How the course will be delivered.

Applicants need to know the extent to which the course will now be delivered online rather than face-to-face and how the balance between, lectures, seminars and self-learning has changed. Students are interested in the volume and arrangements of contact hours and support and resources for learning if this is now taking place online and virtually.

Behind the scenes, in a number of universities decisions on the volume of face to face teaching that students will receive at a course level have still not been reached – and even where they have, in a number of those cases real questions linger over the real world practicalities of that commitment (sometimes clinging to fanciful notions of simultaneous, synchronous in-person and online) – and other questions linger whether staff will agree to come onto campus to teach the hours stated.

In any event students would struggle to get clarity over the volume of and balance between F2F and online beyond “blended” mood music on most of the websites I looked at.

Cost of the course.

OfS says that information about the cost of a course should be explicit upfront and should not increase once the course has started, and that providers should also be clear about any extra costs that students might need to bear to access resources or buy equipment as a result of the changes to teaching.

The way you comply with this sort of depends on the way you’re explaining the loss of shared facilities on campus. If you’re shutting PC labs, maybe you need to warn digital arts students to buy a mac. If you’re saying they’re still open (whilst neglecting to mention that they’ll be down to 20% capacity), maybe you’re not chalking that up as an “extra cost”. In any case, I’ve not seen a word on additional costs on any of the sites I’ve looked at today here – either institutionally or in course-specific information.

How the course will be assessed.

OfS says that students should be told/warned here. You might like exams, you might hate them; you might want an F2F final year show, you might not. There’s widespread concern about creative, placement and lab assessments that still need sorting (sometimes with PSRBs) and other chunks of concern about spikes of assessment offences arising from the rapid development of alternatives to exams. Not all providers are reflecting those unfinished discussions to students. Those that are only have vague “you’ll be tested on the same stuff but not necessarily in the same way” messages.

And the rest

What’s not explicit in the OfS guidance – but still very much in the CMA frame – is other stuff that has been “sold” to students. If you’ve been going on about study space in the on-campus library, access to professionals via the careers hub, the supportive peer support schemes, the wellbeing services, the chaplaincies, the clubs and societies, the sports facilities or sports programmes, then you’re supposed to clarify if can’t deliver something you promised or, arguably, if access to it might be severely restricted or now online.

On this stuff it’s probably fair to say that while I’ve sat through a number of videos of one way systems in libraries, there aren’t so many making clear that the number of places to sit in that library just got cut by 75%.

Need to know basis

All of these things would have been hard to enough to have decided by now – but they’re not the limit of what students need to know. We were told that prospective students need to understand what a provider is committing to deliver both in the current 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. I’ve seen very little that explains how a practical course will be delivered in light of a local lockdown, for example.

All of the info is supposed to also detail arrangements for students suffering from coronavirus or who need to self-isolate, international students, and students unable or less able to access or effectively engage in remote learning for whatever reason – together with care leavers, those estranged from their families, and disabled students. Each of the above. For every course. And every service and facility. I think it would be fair to say that taken in the totality, compliance with that expectation might generously be described as “patchy”.

Sufficient information was also supposed to be provided to allow prospective students to make an informed decision about whether they were willing to start a course and accept the adjustments – or whether they would prefer to defer until the provider is able to deliver the course as originally advertised, or whether they might choose a different course or different provider.

OfS wasn’t especially clear on whether universities should be telling students they have this right – but in any event there’s still plenty of universities either heavily discouraging deferrals, banning them outside of medical justifications or at least implying the answer will be no.

What will it be like

As for the broader and more amorphous “what will it be like”, the sector isn’t really there at all beyond weblinks to SUs. Most campuses have a plan on safe “visiting” and “working” but these plans do involve significantly reducing capacity of previously already tight shared facilities in way not usually quantified or shared publicly. Some timetables will extend into the night, Wednesday afternoons and weekends in problematic ways and not all staff and students know yet. There are some restrictions on specialist facilities that students access in their own time at the edge of (and in some cases over) the line of tolerability – especially for arts/STEM – and this is largely unclear on websites.

There are unresolved issues (and a lack of modelling/understanding) on attendance monitoring protocols, the fact that thousands of students shuffle between university town and home town multiple times a term, and doubts on whether simultaneous dual-mode (online and in person) teaching is actually possible for those still intending it. I’m not seeing any of that reflected on websites.

Public transport is still unresolved in most places. Capacity at initial socially distanced events is a big concern. Mental health strategies aren’t really there. Arrangements for disabled students and concerned staff are still a concern. What students will do all week is another one. And so on. In fact beyond disclaimers and mood music, the differences between what’s still on websites and what’s about to be delivered are, if we’re being honest, pretty opaque.

Consent?

Both for new students that have an offer, and continuing students, OfS talks about the need to obtain “consent” (HEFCW says “agreement”) from students to changes to what has previously been offered. The majority of providers appear to be preparing to take the “consent expression” moment as being enrolment.

OfS says that this information-about-changes + consent-to-them thing should be done in a way that would allow a prospective student to make an informed choice about what and where they study, and to allow them to change their mind if they are not satisfied with the revised offer – but if the moment you say yes/no is mid-September, it’s hardly an ideal time to start considering alternatives. It’s not clear that “just get them to tick a box at enrolment” is quite what consumer law or OfS had in mind.

Students are also supposed to know the options available to them (like the right to seek “repeat performance” or a “partial refund”) if they say “no” to any changes. Again, if these are being provided to students, they’re not being provided in a way that’s especially easy to see.

Is there a problem

Maybe the mismatch between what students can see and what’s happening behind the scenes is a problem – maybe not. Maybe the way the sector seems to be interpreting the guidance is a compliance issue with consumer law and or OfS guidance – maybe not.

OfS said it would rely on four sources of information to judge compliance – self-declaration of course closures, general “engagement” with providers, plus crucially two aspects where students raise things – formal complaints (that get as far as the OIA) and notifications.

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that the regulator has evidence that its monitoring will will work. But using the volume of students using “complaints” or “notifications” processes to signify a problem relies on three things – students knowing their rights (and that they’ve been breached), students knowing the systems are there and how to use them, and students having the confidence they will work. If OfS has evidence that shows that anything other than a tiny minority of students believe those three things, I’ll be amazed.

How would students know that they are entitled to the rights summarised above? I’ve no idea. Try almost everyone you can think of that is in or even adjacent to the “students making choices” space, and see if you can find stuff on students’ rights. Best of luck.

A tall order

For many universities compliance to the letter with all of the expectations outlined in the guidance would have been genuinely very difficult in the time available, and hard to achieve given the multiple permutations and remaining uncertainty about the progress of the pandemic and associated public health issues into the autumn. Expecting higher education to have a crystal ball when no other industry does is daft. And I have no doubt that most people have been doing their very best.

But if all of that’s the case, rather than everyone pretending that they’ve been compliant, shouldn’t we be fessing up to the regulator and ministers and applicants and current students that it’s not been possible? If we weren’t able to offer students the clarity they need, will it really be OK to chase them for the fee liability that our lawyers will be claiming has already kicked in in a few weeks time? When it goes wrong for some of them on this dearth of information, will it be OK that they’ve lost a year’s student finance entitlement and may well owe a year’s rent?

And if the working groups still haven’t nailed being “ready” – but our clearing webpages say we are – wouldn’t it be better to say so now collectively, than get the blame from government later?

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