Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

I am reliably informed that there was a moment at this year’s early summer Southern Students’ Unions conference that made several participants fall off their virtual chairs.

Office for Students CEO Nicola Dandridge was doing a plenary session on what the regulator can and can’t do for students – and when asked about how the regulator was approaching changes that providers might make in September, she said:

The line we are taking is that provision needs to be different but good – not different but bad.”

But what does “good”, or “bad”, or “minimum standard” look like? “That’s a very good question”, said Dandridge – who had to carefully explain that OfS sets “tough baselines” that are based on survey and graduate outcomes rather than provision, that otherwise universities are responsible for their own standards, and then directed students to this, which sadly (or perhaps thankfully) hasn’t yet been turned into a series of insta posts by the OfS student engagement team.

Bananarama and the fun B3

As a reminder, OfS’ “B conditions” set out requirements to ensure that courses are high quality, that students are supported and achieve good outcomes, and that standards are protected. They are expressed as a minimum baseline that all providers are required to meet, but of course OfS “does not prescribe” how a provider should do so. In other words – it ain’t what you do nor the way that you do it, it’s just that you get results.

Where does that leave students? At some point soon we’re expecting some guidance from OfS (which may or may not have the Competition and Markets Authority’s logo on it, but they are dead busy with caravans) and we can pretty much predict what it will say. It’ll be crucial to be as accurate as possible as soon as possible about as much as possible, and certainly before a student signs on the line (of their course agreement – sadly they’ll likely have signed for housing months ago).

Three major factors push in the other direction. For financial and legal reasons, it’s actually important for universities to be as non-committal as possible about as much as possible for as long as possible. We don’t yet know what the progress of the pandemic will look like in September, so don’t know what will be possible. And campus social distancing is really really difficult. So the scramble is on to offer maximum reassurance, with minimum legally enforceable promises.

We are where we are

The reality is that when students’ parents phone up asking how much face to face there will be in September so they know whether to rent that house from 1 July, we just don’t yet know. All this stuff about “hybrid” and “blended” right now is just mood music, designed to send a signal to anyone harbouring second thoughts – that there will be some face-to-face contact, and so it is worth coming. Promising some face to face is vital – as yet unamended student finance rules require it, accommodation budgets depend on it and even the Prime Minister has said it’s important.

But there’s a problem. What is starting to emerge as timetable managers and estates experts report back into the big working groups is just how little capacity there actually is when you apply sensible social distancing rules. Effectively, every large space on a campus has to be used for small groups. Add to that corridor protocols and the sort of significant (and much more regular) deep cleaning that will have to be done – all day, every day – and we suddenly have a problem. Students have been sent the signal that they’ll have a “blended” experience – but face-to-face components may end up making up an unacceptably small fraction of that “blend”.

You can push things a bit. You can repeat some classes, but you need more people when your FD is telling you to lay them off. You can use spaces in evenings or weekends – but that poses major problems for students (and staff) who work, or who have childcare commitments and have to interact properly with what will already be a nightmarish public transport situation. To create coherent student bubbles and reduce mixing, you could make major changes to the curriculum, removing all options in much more generic first years – but students will hate it. You can reduce optional module choice – but students will hate that too.

You could eat into the holidays and extend term dates – but students will need to know fast, and academics rightly won’t be happy given they’re not really had a holiday at Easter or this coming summer. You could “teach intensively”, having single groups of students on campus for intensive modules rather than students juggling four at once. But what if they get ill? You could hire extra spaces. But who has the money for that?

Maybe teaching is moved online, and practical components are postponed – in and of itself a very risky plan – or maybe you do all teaching online, and deliver on your “blended” promise by holding a couple of in-person “catch up” workshops throughout the term. But that will feel like a massive scam, won’t it?

And all of the above is before you even think for a minute about putting the right sort of resource into making online provision “good” rather than “emergency”, and funding your student services, library and SU to be able to offer decent online alternatives. Let me say this again, louder, for those at the back. There is just no way universities would have been able to afford to do all this even if their income was steady – let alone with massive, sudden cuts to their income – and any university, mission group or regulator pretending otherwise is perpetuating a huge lie to learners.

Tina is coming

That leaves everyone in quite a tight spot. The truth is that depending on how much money you have, how many international students you lose, how high your deferral rate is and so on, you might end up doing something that is fantastic – something that avoids many of the downsides, and injects significantly more resource per student into next year given the need to. But it’s more likely that we’ll also see some making major changes to what students should be able to expect – all under the cover of a “there is no alternative” pandemic excuse.

The legal position is usually that just because something like a pandemic means something has become more expensive or onerous to deliver doesn’t mean that you can say it’s become “impossible”. But students are unlikely to know that and even more unlikely to be able to tell the difference between changes being imposed because the pandemic has made delivery impossible, and those imposed because things have all got more difficult.

I mean please. Of course what’s on offer in September isn’t “equivalent”. It might be the best a given university can do on the money it has left for some students, depending on their needs and preferences. But “equivalent” it will not be.

I know some people would like me to, but I’m afraid I don’t subscribe to the idea that students should sign up for a thirty year income contingent mortgage and just put up with the impacts of whatever financial crisis their chosen provider finds themself in out of duty. This is what general taxation is for. I also get that universities are in a tight spot. The question for me is what might force the issue up the chain so some of the risk is taken off students’ shoulders. And that’s where things get fun.

Student power

If OfS was working effectively, the dire state of student contracts (almost all of which give much too much power to universities to vary or not deliver things at all) would have been fixed by now. If it was working effectively it would have found a way to pivot away from its obsession with outcomes to help students and their representative bodies define some actual standards for the new normal instead of waiting 18 months for some NSS results to come through. If OfS was working effectively, students would be told the basis on which they might complain rather than just being repeatedly told the process.

If the Office for Students was working effectively, it would be asking every provider to rewrite their Student Protection Plans now. They’re supposed to be an up to date and accurate reflection of the risks faced by students to continuation of study. I’ve today looked at over 40 of them but I had to stop. Not one has been updated in light of the pandemic. Not one of them looks at the possibility that years abroad are all off – an obvious “material component”. Not one reflects the real risks now to placement supply, or physical access to facilities, or heightened risk to PSRB accreditation. And because the risks aren’t accurate, the crystallisation mitigations that follow them won’t work either.

OfS’ line on SPPs is basically that it’ll intervene if there’s a big risk to provider finances, but what’s the use of that? Overusing the old gym analogy, if my local branch opens for a quarter of the time it did last year with a tenth of the equipment available, I’m frankly not that fussed that the parent company is still solvent. That, folks, would represent “provider interest” instead of “student interest” – a trap OfS was supposed to be avoiding falling into.

Turn up the heat

If OfS was working effectively, students would have real power – them and their representative organisations would be able to bring all of this to a head, and individually, institutionally and nationally could force some acceptance that this isn’t really do-able – with some funding to then help.

But it’s not working effectively, and students don’t have real power. In fact, in comparison to sabre-rattling about its own power, OfS has never shown much interest in ensuring that students or their representative organisations are more powerful. It’s the worst kind of benevolent paternalism. And so now – when the powers it has look like the wrong ones for the wrong problem – students are left with impossible, miserable either-or choices.

I expect it’s likely that at almost every level we will carry on doing all we can to avoid bringing all this to a head. Stiff upper lip. We’re all in this together. And as we carry on pretending that things like an online year abroad is somehow “equivalent”, we’ll have to stifle that nagging feeling that we’re gaslighting the students we strive to educate on a massive, unprecedented scale.

3 responses to “In September provision needs to be different but good – not different but bad

  1. This is where the failure of a competitive market model really starts to show. It seems blindingly obvious that the best solution (in the absence of a January start to the next academic year) is to commit wholeheartedly, now, to 100% online, and to work on doing that well and getting it right – not least for reasons of equity and access. But as pointed out elsewhere on Wonkhe, this would be recruitment suicide to any institution that unilaterally made such a sensible move. It’s a collective action problem that only the government or OfS can solve by requiring universities to do it.

  2. @Sarah your post assumes that all HE providers have the same conditions and risks. They don’t. Scale, catchment, manner of delivery, degree of residence, subject mix all vary. That’s why autonomy and decentralisation matter so much.

  3. Interesting criticisms here of how OfS are operating, but I do also wonder if it is fair to distinguish between OfS acting within its remit and OfS acting how everybody would like them to act. It’s a bit rock-and-hard-place right now, and because they’re still in relative infancy as a body what the crisis has highlighted is the tension between market autonomy and more proactive sector regulation (and shepherding). A lot of the talk is about waiting for OfS/CMA etc. to make decisions, when all along it’s been clear (no matter how you feel about it) that OfS don’t want to tell you how to do what you do, they want to tell you how successfully they think you’ve done it.

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