Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Consider, if you will, this tale of student academic experience in a time of Covid-19.

You’re a first year undergraduate at a UK university. You’re miserable.

You’ve moved to the city. You didn’t get into university halls so the housing you have is fairly expensive. You’ve been dutifully self-isolating for the first two weeks of term because someone had symptoms so you’ve missed the face to face welcome activity that was on. You don’t get on with anyone you live with.

You were assured you’d be getting a “blend” of face to face to face teaching and online learning this term, but as it turns out you’ve only been allocated five hours of face to face contact between now and Christmas. And your online teaching seems to vary wildly between modules.

On one module you have lots of synchronous content where you are invited to talk to other students, although the staff are not confident in using the tech and there are plenty of hitches. On another it’s almost all asynchronous – narrated powerpoints and reading, parcelled up into what the university is calling “equivalent hours”, with no chance to ask questions of staff or eachother.

Your tutors on two of your modules are supportive and going the extra mile, and organising extra sessions – although they seem exhausted. On the other two you feel like they’re phoning it in and responses to emails take over a week.

To help you learn, the university boasted of a well resourced library, but you can’t really browse in there and you certainly aren’t going to get a slot to sit down any time soon. You need access to a studio for your course, but that’s operating on 45 minute slots (one a week) too – a world away from what you were promised. That time in the studio really matters for you getting confident in the industry and for the learning outcomes, although your module handbook suggests it isn’t.

You’re told you’ll mainly be assessed online, but you’re not sure that that will give you the real world, hand on experience you feel you need in your chosen field. It might get you the degree but will it wash with employers?

There’s a bunch of face to face components in your module descriptions – teaching, field trips, demonstrations, assessment and some wider experiences – that you’ve been told will happen after Christmas. But will they?

You’re supposed to go on placement next summer. The uni says you have to find it, but there’s already panic from peers that nobody is offering spaces this year. Your tutors say the award doesn’t include any learning outcomes directly linked to the placement so not to worry. You still worry.

You were told that you’d have the opportunity to visit employers – but they will now be done on Zoom. You were told there would be visiting lecturers from your industry, but they’ve all been made redundant. Your course’s academic society was advertised as introducing you to university life, organising regular trips and inviting guest speakers to the university, but it doesn’t seem to be running.

And the access to the specialist IT software and resources you need is only available on campus. A committee is discussing that next week. But that’s what you were told the week before, and the week before that.

Your housemate said you could raise concerns with your rep, but nobody volunteered to be the rep on your course.

Now what?

Quality matters

I’ve written a lot over the months, both before and after the onset of the pandemic, about student consumer rights – and there are obviously issues in the above tale that relate to promises, those promises being broken, and whether it was reasonable or legal to do so.

I’ve paid less attention to the linked issue of quality. That matters for all sorts of reasons, not least because the notion of “quality” is central to the government’s position on provision during Covid:

Universities are autonomous, if they feel they are not providing that quality then they can set a lower tuition fees, we only set the maximum.

We are very clear they need to be providing that quality but in terms of tuition and also the wider support that students deserve.”

That was Michelle Donelan in Parliament on October 12th. Asked whether students should still be expected to pay up to £9,250 in tuition fees, she continued:

It would be unacceptable for a student to be paying those tuition fees and not getting that quality or not getting that support.

If the universities are not providing the quality then they cannot command that price.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to find taught programmes which have been cancelled or postponed – by which I mean someone somewhere has accepted that given the constraints the pandemic places upon teaching, wider facilities/support and assessment, on balance a particular course can’t proceed.

It’s surely just not credible that almost every programme can still run despite the pandemic. And what if a large number of courses that are still running have managed that either by bodges that are, on balance and on reflection, academically unacceptable, and others that are operating on the basis that Father Christmas is bringing a vaccine?

So as a thought experiment, I thought I’d put myself in the shoes of the aforecreated student to see if I could work out if what I am experiencing is of sufficient “quality”.

On the assumption that the university would of course say it is, is there some kind of process, standard, or verification to see if the university is right? Would I have decent grounds for a complaint? I’ve never done a degree before – are my expectations, particularly during a pandemic – too low or too high?

Does “outcomes” based regulation work – either generally or in a pandemic? If “risk based” regulation is all about letting providers with a “track record” do their own thing, what if nobody has a track record because nobody has run a university in the middle of a global pandemic before? What if all the systems and processes all involve fixing things next year instead of assuring the quality of things now?

What if everyone’s doing their best, but that their best isn’t good enough? And what if our “defence” for our reputation and income as a sector is “quality” – but we discover that everything we used to use to assure it has been scrapped or abandoned under the weight of hand sanitizer?

What if, when we say we are allowed to impose academic judgment on a student, they argue back “only if you use reasonable care and skill”. Is that “reasonable” for a pandemic or “reasonable” in an academic sense. Or both? Or neither?

Settle in. We’re in for quite a ride here.

Challenge accepted

I begin my quest by being told by my Telegraph-reading Dad that Michelle Donelan has said something to the Education Committee about the Office for Students, which I’ve previously only been vaguely aware of. I start by googling around and find this page on “Quality assessment and monitoring”.

The “B” conditions look interesting – I don’t feel like my course is well-designed this year, and nor do I feel like I’m getting a high quality academic experience. I’m not confident about being reliably assessed either.

I’m also not convinced I’m getting the support I need to succeed in and benefit from higher education, and I’m worried about the outcomes I’ll be able to lead onto given all the employer access stuff seems to be restricted.

I start reading OfS’ regulatory framework, which is pretty impenetrable – but I do dig in and find the “B” conditions, all of which seem to have a similar template. Each say OfS will look at:

  • Any assessment that the DQB may make about the extent to which the provider is meeting the relevant expectation of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education.
  • National surveys of students’ views for the provider.
  • Student complaints, whether to the OIA or elsewhere, that courses are not well-designed and providing a high quality academic experience for all students and that student achievement is not being reliably assessed.
  • Complaints from staff or others that courses are not well-designed and providing a high quality academic experience for all students and that student achievement is not being reliably assessed.

I’m not sure what a lot of that means – what’s a DQB? – but it does feel a bit “for the before times” and all a bit “looking back”. I want to know what might be being done now, in this pandemic.

I find myself on a page marked “Student guide to coronavirus” and note that “Universities and colleges are under immense pressure”. Well aren’t we all. But I also see that they have a “duty of care to all their students” and a “responsibility to continue teaching and learning activities where possible”. For many, this has “meant moving teaching online”.

But what should this “duty of care” mean in practice, and to what standard should changes to teaching and learning activities – especially those that have moved online – be operating?

Some confusing sounding paragraphs say that OfS has:

Published new guidance for universities and colleges on how we will regulate academic quality and standards during the pandemic. This is supplemented by guidance on student and consumer protection during the pandemic.

And that I can:

Find out more about what you can expect from your university or college in terms of teaching, learning and assessment with our frequently asked questions.

I click that, and on this “Student FAQ” page the word quality doesn’t appear – but there is one question that looks relevant:

What should universities and colleges be doing to help students to continue with courses and assessments?

I click that, but it was obviously written in May. There’s nothing that really talks about courses or provision this year – but it does say that “we have published guidance for universities and colleges about how we will regulate quality and standards during this period of disruption.”

Quality and standards

That takes me to a document (marked April 3rd) called “Guidance for providers about quality and standards during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic” that I have to read a few times to make sense of it.

It says that the focus of the document is:

That providers should make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for achievement to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely, and to enable a fair and robust admissions process for entrants to courses in 2020-21.

But none of that is really about what I’m experiencing. Again, it reads like it was written in May.

I do discover that the “B” conditions are “expressed as a minimum baseline” that all providers are required to meet, but the OfS “does not prescribe how a provider should do so”. Fair enough, but what is this mysterious “minimum baseline” and how can I compare what I’m experiencing to it?

Eventually I find a section called “Maintaining quality during the pandemic”, which says that Covid-19 has caused many providers to make significant changes to the way they deliver higher education courses in order to comply with government advice and protect the health of their students and staff.

Again, fair enough. It says that a provider is likely to continue to meet OfS’s conditions for quality and standards during this period if it has made “all reasonable efforts” to provide alternative teaching and support for students that is “broadly equivalent” to the provider’s usual arrangements. This is more like it, I think, as I discover that “Further information about the OfS’s approach to these issues is set out below.”

I get further in. I see that OfS says three things that seem of relevance:

Providers will need to give particular consideration to whether and how online delivery can replace placement learning, studio, laboratory, practical or other specialist elements of courses.

Ah. That’s an issue for me.

Providers should consider the impact on students of varying the delivery of such elements or not delivering particular elements at all. In these circumstances it is important for a provider to consider the extent to which all planned elements of the course are necessary, or not, or whether any elements could be moved to subsequent years of study.

That’s also an issue for me.

Providers should also clearly communicate with students about how they will be able to complete these components of the course and what arrangements will be made for this, if it is necessary, when face-to-face teaching can recommence.

That’s an issue too. I don’t remember the communication about any of this being clear at all.

This all seems to suggest to me that the various changes to the course and wider facilities and services that I’m worried about should at least have been “considered carefully”. I have no idea once we are all clear that careful consideration has been given what standard I can expect, or how it’s maintained or assured – but I decide to try to chase down the “careful consideration” process later.

There’s text on placements that seems to give universities options, and some more text that says that providers need to consider how they will support students, especially those that are disadvantaged. More considering. I don’t feel especially disadvantaged but I’ve no idea how many of the suggestions in the document should have been taken up or to what standard or extent.

The document does say that providers should be aware that all students are likely to require increased pastoral support and resources to support their wellbeing and so should consider what additional support they can offer, within their own context, to maintain good student continuation and completion. But is that it? As long as the university has “considered” the issue, it could offer me very little?

After a break I brave two more sections on “delivering outcomes for students” and on “securing standards during the pandemic”. The first seems to talk about surveys and jobs – but I want things fixed now, not in a few years time. Neither section seems relevant to me and my concerns now.

The OIA appears

After I sleep on it all I read the media and I’m reminded of something called the “Office of the Independent Adjudicator”, which Michelle Donelan had mentioned and seems to be a complaints body for universities. I find an article online by the adjudicator, and this is encouraging:

What the next academic year will look like is hard to predict. It’s obviously important for students who are making decisions – decisions that are likely to affect the rest of their lives – to know what they are committing themselves to and what they can expect, and it is equally important for providers not to overpromise.

Another spike in UK-wide or local coronavirus infections could derail the best of plans. Students may be happy to sign up to a term of online learning, but a full year may not be so palatable. Others may have chosen a course because of face-to-face elements that might have to be abandoned if there is another lockdown.

I’m thinking that if that was true in June, I should know more by now. Maybe OIA can help me judge this “quality” issue?

And this sounds like me too:

Language students may see their crucial year abroad evaporate. Work placements may be lost, shortened or postponed. Access to labs, design and art spaces, performance opportunities and professional placements may all be reduced.

What students who are going into their first year, with their eyes open, decide to accept might not work for re-enrolling students whose expectations are based on what they were promised when they signed up in a different age. And postgraduate and PhD students are likely to face some distinct challenges.

But there’s a line that seems to take me back to square one on the board:

“Providers are being encouraged to ensure that they continue to offer “good quality” courses if they want to charge the full tuition fee. What is less clear is what this means in practice – although there is some good practical advice and guidance available, such as the QAA’s guidance on online delivery and preserving academic standards.

The QAA you say? I park that for a minute.

Assessments about the quality of what has been delivered are likely to involve academic judgement, which we can’t look at. So we wouldn’t be able to consider a complaint that teaching was not of an adequate academic standard, or that an online teaching session wasn’t as good as it would have been face to face, or that a postgraduate student did not get supervision of satisfactory quality.

Oh wow I think. So I can’t complain after all? So it will all just be up to the university whether what I’m getting is “quality”? The body I would complain to gets to decide?

We could look at what the provider had done to check the quality of the provision. But we couldn’t judge whether the teaching itself was of the right academic standard or quality.

Oh – that’s interesting. It could look at the process of checking that the provision and the changes to it are quality. But not at a judgement of quality itself.

I need agency

This seems pretty baffling, but I note that reference to something called the QAA – which I discover is the “Quality Assurance Agency” – and find guidance on “Preserving Quality and

Standards Through a Time of Rapid Change: UK Higher Education in 2020-21”. Maybe this will explain!

While most, if not all providers, will need to deliver courses and modules through a mixed mode of delivery, with some virtual and (where practicable and safe) onsite teaching, degree-awarding bodies will need to assure themselves that the awards that result from this learning are secure and meet the Expectations of the UK Quality Code for Higher Education (the Quality Code).

The Quality Code is based on outcomes and offers considerable freedom to providers to adapt their approaches while securing academic standards through appropriate assessment.

The Quality Code you say? I google this, and discover that the university is required to design and/or deliver high-quality courses, to ensure it has sufficient appropriately

qualified and skilled staff to deliver a high-quality academic experience, and has sufficient and appropriate facilities, learning resources and student support services to deliver a high-quality academic experience.

That doesn’t sound like what I’m experiencing – but am I right in my judgement?

I switch back to the QAA doc.

This reveals to me that pre-2020, most changes made to a programme or module/unit of study could typically go through multiple levels of approval (for example, programme, department/school, quality assurance team, institution, sign-off by responsible officer).

This, says QAA, ensured the avoidance of as much risk as possible by involving the broadest possible range of people at each stage in the process, and by providing significant time for consideration of proposed changes.

This, says QAA, ensured consistency in decision making and significantly reduces the risk that any change made would negatively impact on quality and standards.

But apparently in the current circumstances, this multi-layered approach to initial decision making may no longer be fit-for-purpose. So there’s advice:

  • Accepting a greater degree of risk in the decision making and focus on identifying and mitigating that risk over time, rather than writing it out at the approval stage.
  • Providers may consider if the number of people (and the number of approval points in a quality assurance process) are appropriate.
  • The right mix of fewer people could make these decisions in a consistent, low risk way.

This still doesn’t really help address my concerns and questions, but QAA does say that clear records of decision making need to be kept, to help providers implement new ways of managing risk. I then read this section:

A flexible approach to dealing with risk needs appropriate documentation to ensure that where risks have been identified, they have been discussed; clear decisions on how to deal with that risk are made; and that mitigations against the risk are undertaken.
Where providers accept a greater degree of risk at the decision-making stage, they need to be confident that the mitigations over time will be implemented and, when appropriate, further decisions taken. This will then help providers to ensure that the overall risk to the student’s ability to achieve the relevant outcomes changes little, despite the potentially considerable changes made to the way providers manage that risk.

I think that means “if you’re going to scrutinise less over the summer you’ll need to risk assess doing so and find ways to mitigate against the risks later”, but I’m not sure and I‘m tired, so very tired.

In our next exciting episode

I retumn to this QAA stuff the next day. I see it says that providers should consider ways of gaining external views on changes and to engage students’ unions or other representative bodies to act as the student “voice” when considering changes. I resolve to follow that up later.

I see it says that often providers have used terms such as “major” or “minor” to identify how change is considered through the relevant regulations and processes. Clearly major would need a meeting. But it doesn’t say much about the cumulative effect of a suite of minor changes – Trigger’s broom, or Theseus’ ship.

There’s a bunch of stuff that talks about “learning outcomes” which is confusing, but I know I need to follow up on these processes. And then I rest.

The following morning I get back on the trail and see something about “degree awarding powers”. I google that and I find myself back in the OfS regulatory framework, and this seems to be super-relevant:

Organisations with degree awarding powers are expected to demonstrate that they are able to design and deliver courses and qualifications that provide a high quality academic experience to all students from all backgrounds, irrespective of their location, mode of study, academic subject, protected characteristics, previous educational background or nationality.

OK. But what does high quality mean?

Organisations offering higher education awards are expected to consider carefully the purposes and objectives of the programmes they are offering. They are also expected to design their curricula, learning and teaching activities and associated resources, and assessment and feedback, in a way that will give diligent students the best chance of achieving their purposes and objectives and the threshold academic standards for the qualification being sought. Organisations offering higher education qualifications must have the means of establishing for themselves that their intentions are, in practice, being met.

Ah OK. So the university itself should have processes that deliver “quality”:

The organisation operates effective processes for the design, development and approval of programmes. Relevant staff are informed of, and provided with guidance and support on, these procedures and their roles and responsibilities in relation to them. Responsibility for approving new programme proposals is clearly assigned, including the involvement of external expertise, where appropriate, and subsequent action is carefully monitored.

This worries me a bit because OfS and QAA were both saying a university might need to accelerate or collapse some of those processes to cope. There’s also sections on assessment, facilities and staff that also look relevant to me, including:

Students are provided with opportunities to develop an understanding of, and the necessary skills to demonstrate, good academic practice.

Everyone involved in teaching or supporting student learning, and in the assessment of student work, is appropriately qualified, supported and developed to the level(s) and subject(s) of the qualifications being awarded.

The teaching and learning infrastructure – all the facilities, digital resources and support activities that are provided to maximise students’ chances of developing their potential and of obtaining the qualification they are seeking – is a means to an end.

Organisations that award their own qualifications are expected to have mechanisms in place designed to support and develop students beyond the arrangements for learning, teaching and assessment addressed in criterion

Critical self-assessment is integral to the operation of its higher education provision and that action is taken in response to matters raised through internal or external monitoring and review.

I ask some of the questions that all of the above issues raise of academic staff I speak to. Some tell me that everyone is doing their best in a difficult situation. Some tell me some things are yet to be decided. Some tell me that many of the things I talk about are things they’ve asked about too. I feel like I’m being fobbed off.

I’m taking it formal

I decide to raise my concerns in a formal letter. I get a formal letter back saying that the university has considered changes to the course carefully and is confident that the planned activities will still meet the learning objectives for my award. I am told how to make a formal complaint if I want to.

I’m no troublemaker so I write back and ask for evidence of the decisions being made – after all these should have been made “carefully” and so on. I’m sent a vague policy document on the university’s “blended approach”, half a side of A4 that describes some of the changes and the minutes of a meeting that show when the changes were approved. Along with changes to 100 other modules.

After all, the university has had to streamline its processes for changes given the pandemic, and that it has made “all reasonable efforts” to provide alternative teaching and support for students that is “broadly equivalent” to the provider’s usual arrangements.

I make the complaint formal. A meeting is held. I get a similar reply that stresses that students do get to feed back on their experiences as part of the quality assurance issues, that a student rep is normally a member of the committee that made the changes but was unavailable over the summer, and am told that something called an external examiner was present too.

I submit an appeal. I point out that if I’d waited for the student feedback processes to kick in it would have been too late to make changes to the course, and too late in terms of what the complaints procedure said in terms of time limits. And I argue that the process was incomplete and rushed, and failed to consider the cumulative impact of lots of little changes.

Another meeting is held. I get a similar reply.

This time, a £50 voucher is offered in recognition of my disappointment with how the course has played out this year but that nevertheless makes clear that accepting such a voucher is not an admission of failure, and would be a full and final settlement of the complaint.

I log on to my new online Student Loans Company account and find my current debt is more than the £18,453 that I thought it would be and discover that I’ve been accruing interest all year.

I accept the voucher, and send it to one of my lecturers as a gift.

After all, everyone’s done their best.

2 responses to “Never mind the quality, feel the exhaustion

  1. Jim entertainingly takes us around the quality-quantum issue in HE teaching delivery. Any challenges to the former are prevented in every legal jurisdiction by the judicial convention of providing immunity to academic decision-makers providing they were sane/sober at the time of deciding the exam results or the course contents – and so, short of legislation or the UKSC throwing out the doctrine (as, eg, the UKSC recently ended similar immunity for expert witnesses), HE can play a get-out-of-jail-free card. The aggrieved student has more hope of a fees refund if he/she can show a deficiency in the quantum of teaching – as in the UCU strike actions of 2018/19 when teaching stopped and the OIA awarded c£150 pw of lost teaching, and in Covid-times that might mean lab practicals or studio sessions or field-work falling away. In ‘The Law of Higher Education’ we have been querying over several editions the credibility of this judicial deference to the proper exercise of academic judgement in the context of mass marketised & commodified HE where the ‘customer’ pays high fees for the ‘service’ from (in the language of the Consumer Rights Act 2015) the ‘trader’ as the Uni. David Palfreyman & Dennis Farrington.

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