As a campaigner for the return of in-person teaching at universities, my view is that online teaching is a pale imitation of being in the room – it robs students of opportunities to engage with real people in the physical world.
I believe students are being encouraged into the idea that online teaching is normal and good for them – yet in reality the main reason they accept it is because it enables them to binge watch lectures at irregular hours, and is “easier” than going to a lecture hall in accordance with a weekly structured timetable.
As a parent, I send my children away to university in the hope that it will broaden their horizons – not to turn them into online teaching “zombies” who barely leave their bedrooms.
In-person and online are different experiences. One involves sitting in a lecture hall that you have physically travelled to, at a regular time of day as part of a structured weekly timetable, surrounded by your fellow students, and with a hopefully engaging lecturer.
The other involves a student in their bedroom watching a lecture on a screen, which is more than likely pre-recorded, probably on their own, at possibly an irregular hour, maybe as a binge watch catch up, and most likely whilst they are doing something else as the same time and perhaps struggling to concentrate.
Now I can see that some may take a different view on teaching and learning experiences and that some may prefer the accessibility of online teaching. And in some cases it is clear that online resources can complement in person delivery. But the confusion for prospective students is whether any particular university is genuinely fully in-person, and/or using online teaching as complementary to in-person, or actually more as a replacement. So isn’t the point that a student should be able to choose?
If students pay for higher education, then they should know what particular version of the “student experience” they are buying. I was encouraged when I found that view to be in line with that of Nicola Dandridge (ex. CEO of OfS) when responding to a question on this point at the Education Select Committee on 22nd March 22:
I agree; I think that information should be available. It is a basic consumer protection right that you should know what you are buying. I find that self-evident, so the answer to that is yes.”
Indeed, when OfS announced its blended learning review it was announced in the press release that Nicola Dandridge said the below: –
Ms Dandridge said the “return to relative normality is important” and that it “remains very important that universities and colleges are clear with their students and their applicants about how courses will be delivered”.
She said universities needed to be “explicit” about which elements of courses remained online and whether modules were delivered online or face-to-face.
The blended review supposedly deals with this consumer issue. It does say:
Universities and colleges should ensure their marketing information is clear and provides sufficiently detailed information about how courses will be delivered.”
And there’s also:
We would be likely to have compliance concerns in relation to condition C1 if a provider cannot demonstrate that it has had due regard for relevant guidance about how to comply with consumer protection law in developing and publishing information for prospective students about a course”
The problem is that I have been sending extensive reports and information to OfS that I think shows that the majority of English universities have not been publishing sufficiently clear information for prospective students about their courses’ online content for over a year now – and instead are merely stating vague and general information.
And far from triggering “compliance concerns”, OfS has instead stopped answering my communications.
In a 2019 board paper, OfS accepted that:
The information currently available to support student choice is inadequate because it is not always sufficiently detailed about the things that matter to students, and is not always structured in a way that allows students to make meaningful comparisons between different providers and courses.
This means that students do not consistently have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices about what and where to study. It is not easy for students to identify instances where they have not received the service they were promised and to seek redress. This means that students’ consumer protection rights are not enforced when what they have been promised, in terms of quality, contact time, support, and so on, is not delivered.
It also said:
We should, however, also consider whether a model that relies primarily on individual students challenging a provider for a breach of contract places a burden on students in an undesirable way.
But we haven’t seen any development since then on the issue.
One of the other problems is as follows:
We do not specify how a provider should articulate its blend of online and face-to-face learning (provided it is clear to students . . . .”
In other words, the report ducks the issue identified in that board paper – making no effort to define how universities can meet their obligations with regards to transparency to adapt to this new era where online teaching is becoming more prevalent. The report goes on to list out the existing wording of CMA guidelines on clear information requirements. But what is the point of listing out guidelines that it appears to have no intention of explaining or enforcing?
And what’s the point of a portal designed to give students information on choice – DiscoverUni – that doesn’t hold any of that information?
The upshot is that students are going to continue to enrol at universities having no real idea of the extent to which the delivery of their course will rely on online teaching.
And because universities are being careful not to make any definitive statements about the exact extent of online teaching on any given course, then students do not have any enforceable promises if something different is delivered.
Over a decade
As long ago as 2011, David Willetts’ White paper responded to concerns that students as consumers were not being allowed an informed consumer choice about what their university course would entail – particularly with regards to the exact number and type of teaching hours.
The White paper highlighted a significant disparity with regard to contact teaching hours across the sector, and the existing CMA guidelines have been designed to ensure that students can make an informed choice with regard to the number of contact teaching hours on their course compared to others.
The underlying concern of the White Paper was that as universities are inevitably financially motivated, then there is bound to be pressure to reduce costs (by cutting service levels – including reducing teaching) and increase revenues (by increasing numbers).
The advent of widespread online teaching might be helpful for some students – but it also represents the most significant opportunity to cut both fixed and ongoing costs that the university sector could have imagined – so tough independent responsive regulation is now more important than ever.
The only viable solution now is for OfS to explicitly state how universities should comply with the existing CMA guidelines – by publishing simple comparable information, in a consistent industry-wide format, stating the exact number of hours per week on average a student can expect to have of face-to-face teaching, broken down into lectures, seminars workshops etc.
The information should be prominent on universities’ websites, DiscoverUni and on UCAS – ideally with example/sample weekly timetables published. Only then can a prospective student, with the help of their parents or other advisors, make an informed choice. And very importantly, a student will then have actionable rights ensuring that universities deliver on the commitments made.