Of knights and knaves – can universities be trusted to navigate through Covid-19?

The UK HE sector has plenty of principles for managing quality during Covid-19, but there's not much concrete assurance on offer. Debbie McVitty wonders how much that matters.

An apparent consensus is forming among HE sector organisations that it is possible to offer incoming students an experience of a comparable quality to the one they originally signed up for, even with all the restrictions arising from Covid-19.

How do we know? We’re awash with principles, from Universities UK’s principles for emergence from lockdown, to the Quality Assurance Agency’s principles for preserving quality and standards in 2020-21.

Boiled down to their essentials, both documents state that in planning their September offer universities should comply with public health guidance to protect the wellbeing of staff and students, deliver learning and teaching of an equivalent quality to that which was previously on offer, and engage with various stakeholder groups – staff, students, the community – in doing so.

These sorts of documents are very familiar to the UK higher education sector. They’re designed to offer assurance to the public – and, these days, to students – that universities have collectively got a grip on the issues, without specifying the exact ways any individual university should be operating.

On a pragmatic level they maintain the sense of a “sector” while accounting for institutional diversity, especially smaller and specialist providers. And, for the universities that either haven’t really got a grip and need a nudge, or have a grip but need the reassurance that they are about equally grippy to everyone else, they function as a reference point without actually stamping all over university autonomy.

In essence they meet universities’ needs more than they meet the needs of the public and students for clarity in communications. They’re perfectly designed to shape a meeting agenda and create a set of action points and accountabilities – the QAA document even asks, rhetorically, whether universities should be setting up a steering group to oversee 2020-21 planning.

The question, though, is whether this hybrid part-assurance, part-guidance approach is the right thing for the present times.

The principles approach doesn’t question whether it’s possible or feasible for universities to comply with the principles. It doesn’t create mechanisms to check whether universities are complying, or penalties for those who are found to not be. In that sense, it offers no assurance whatsoever.

Altruism and self-interest

Where you stand on this issue almost certainly depends on where you fall on the “knights or knaves” continuum set out by Julian Le Grand in his examination of public policy in the context of public services.

If you hold – as I suspect most people who work in universities do – that the people who work in universities have generally altruistic motives, are competent, creative people, and are committed to doing the right thing, you’ll point out that courses are designed by professionals who know their subjects and students well, and that universities have robust internal quality processes.

People at this end of the spectrum tend to characterise the relationship with students as one of trust and confidence – students may not get what they’d hoped for, but their university will work hard to make it up to them in other ways. This, I think, also accounts for some of the more upbeat narratives emerging from some universities – when competent, creative people are confronted with a challenge, they tend to look for the opportunities to innovate and make positive change.

If you hold the view that universities and the people who work in them are, if not in active pursuit of evil ends, at best highly vulnerable to having their ends diverted to self-interest – you’ll point out that September recruitment is an existential question for quite a few universities.

You’d also agree with Jim Dickinson’s argument that a close look at the basis for the claim to be able to provide something “equivalent” (or, as Universities UK puts it, “the same world-class experience for which UK higher education is known”) looks shaky given the circumstances. And there is no realistic alternative to making the best of a bad hand – are universities seriously going to tell students that what’s on offer is sub-par?

I’m not arguing that we’re all firmly at one pole or the other – actually across much of the policy debate you’ll see the same actors pivoting between both positions in the same policy documents. Everyone’s at different points in the continuum depending on what the issue is, and sometimes, depending on our emotional state on any given day – though we do, perhaps, tend to view those further along the spectrum in either direction as excessively cynical or excessively naive. And of course lots of people find it helpful to characterise one segment of the university community as knights and another as knaves in the service of their own arguments.

More assurance, please

It’s interesting, though, that OfS, hitherto rather more towards the knavish end of the spectrum in its interpretation of its responsibilities, has not sought to take action, or trigger QAA, to secure assurance that what HE providers are planning is protecting quality and standards. The Welsh and Scottish funding councils can secure private assurance through direct engagement with institutional contacts; OfS is supposed to operate in the public eye.

There would be a case for instituting an emergency institutional review regime – internal quality processes were not designed for rapid response and may not be functioning particularly well in these circumstances. In fact, the new regulatory system was intended to remove a barrier to innovation by focusing on outcomes not processes and only intervening in riskier cases. This situation is about as risky as it gets and, as we know, the outcomes data will only emerge when it’s far too late to do anything about it.

The counter-argument is that universities need another job to do like a hole in the head – and the additional burden of a snap inspection will only ultimately divert already limited resources from coping with the transition. Goodness knows how PSRBs are responding to the new world order but I’d hazard lots of programme and quality managers have their work cut out trying to figure out how to stay compliant.

A pragmatic assessment is that even if what’s on offer is robustly quality assured, it still won’t – can’t – be the university experience many students dreamed of when they filled in their UCAS forms (though that doesn’t remove the need to assure it). And, in making decisions, students will draw to a greater extent on their relationship with their chosen provider than on sector-level communications.

And that might well be OK – it’s obvious that the pandemic has had a hugely disruptive effect on our whole world, and students are going to be smart enough to understand the difference between the best possible experience that could be offered under the circumstances, and a the fantasy ideal of business as usual that no university could conceivably offer right now. Perhaps the most important principle today is to be honest about that.

4 responses to “Of knights and knaves – can universities be trusted to navigate through Covid-19?

  1. An excellent article.
    One thought might be that Universities that choose to have a quality assurance “kite mark” might fare better in recruiting future students than those without. I wonder if the Scottish sector, with its regular Enhancement-led QAA Scotland reviews might use that assurance to attract students. Interesting times.

  2. In lieu of a kite mark, an independent review of content and delivery contingency planning may serve to reassure prospective students whilst providing an operational framework to guide departmental activities

  3. Is a simple (I hope not simplistic) answer on assurance of universities regarding their Covid preparations, where they are not already, to publish the preparation and risk planning they will all have? That planning will systematically go through published government guidance (such as this from the Scottish Government) which incorporates information from Universities UK and from the employers’ association in conjunction with trades unions. It will put guidance into the university’s own context. In many instances it will have been developed in consultation or jointly with staff and students. These will be dynamic and developing documents, but would provide assurance for anyone wanting the detail, without any need for emergency institutional reviews or additional burden. May show that most UK universities are knights…

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