Securing the student interest in Covid-19 will require tough choices

Jim Dickinson thinks through the trade-offs between institutional and student interests as boards of governors consider their response to Covid-19.

Here’s a tough question. Either it was always possible to deliver what was promised to students on less than £9,250, or universities are about to deliver less than what was promised for £9,250. Which is it? And if asked, what would you say out loud?

This is the sort of issue that should matter to governing bodies. Not only are boards of governors and councils legally responsible for a university and its activities, there are also wider duties and accountabilities – to students and communities, and to taxpayers. These are competing duties that were already important before Covid-19, but they’re even more important now.

The need to make savings and cope with a potential collapse in demand means the educational character and mission of all of our universities is being dramatically and rapidly altered – not necessarily in a temporary way. The nature of the relationship with students – both collectively and individually – is also in contention.

And while the emergency nature of the crisis before Easter probably required governors to step back from active challenge of executive teams, beyond seeking assurance that the welfare of staff and students had been addressed, the big decisions needed for the transitions arguably need governors to engage deeply and critically with the specific trade-offs required in the months ahead.

Business as usual

The signal that new universities minister Michelle Donelan seems keen to send, both to home and international applicants, is that September for the higher education sector will, as far as possible, be business as usual. It might end up being partially online, but that shouldn’t stop students enrolling. Please do keep calm and please do carry on.

That does mean that the choices facing prospective students – and indeed continuing students – are stark, and full of problematic risk/opportunity conundrums to weigh up. On the one hand, the experience of enrolling in September when we might be bouncing in and out of social distancing like a student in and out of a set of halls with a faulty fire alarm might be miserable – especially because most UK enrolment is as much about the campus experience as it is about learning outcomes.

On the other hand, to the extent to which university is also about class signalling, it may well be massively difficult to get into university the year after – especially if by then applications have doubled and a whole clutch of providers have collapsed or recalibrated their offer. And if you’re a continuing student, there’s your friends, and that housing contract you’ve already signed, and anyway – you’re sick of being at home. So do you gamble?

The news is good

In theory the good news for students is that they shouldn’t have to take those sorts of risks personally. Because students that pay fees are legally consumers, there are both student protection plans and a wider consumer protection regime to help.

Student protection plans are a regulatory requirement introduced when the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 started to be implemented, and are supposed to set out the risks to continuation of study faced by students, and make clear the plan if any of those risks shifted from hypothetical to actual. It’s a policy designed to address the increased risks to students and their families of the competitive market in higher education – it gives reassurance to students that if something went wrong they would be able to complete their studies.

It’s probably the least the state can do. Enrolling on a course of study is quite a risky business and involves a major investment (both financial and in opportunity costs) from individuals. The state here is suggesting that its system of autonomous, competing providers normally works well – but on the occasion that it doesn’t, its regulator insists that an appropriate safety net has been developed so you can be confident you’ll be able to continue and complete your course.

The big problem right now is that many higher education providers may well be facing increased and enhanced risks to the continuation of study but might also not be super keen to admit them or be public about them. Student protection plans cover courses, campuses and “material components” of the student experience. There’s a moral case to be honest about the increased risks and set these out in the plan. There’s a simultaneous risk of prompting a panic and swift exodus if you’re honest – or even just pessimistic – about aspects of the university. Which option do you choose? And will that choice be made by the governing body?

Spending reductions

There are similar questions to face over student terms and conditions. If governing bodies ever approve these, it’s on the nod on the recommendation from a finance director – but terms and conditions are suddenly in sharp focus.

Almost everyone accepts that the things universities have done to cope with Covid-19 so far have been extraordinary, and the result is that there is little real dissatisfaction around the “online pivot” in anything but the more extreme student or course circumstances. But the autumn is something else. Universities have a legal duty to deliver what they have promised, with reasonable skill and care, and can only generally rely on clauses that deal with things like a pandemic if delivery becomes impossible – rather than merely expensive or awkward.

Terms that allow a higher education provider to vary or drop something – such as the breadth of course content or major facilities – are unfair where they allow wide discretion to the provider to make changes to important aspects of the service. “It is important”, says the Competition and Markets Authority, “that students receive what they expected, rather than something different.”

In theory that takes the risk out of September – both for prospective students who’ve relied on the “material information” about their campus experience, and continuing students who would need to explicitly agree to a variation to what’s been offered, a failure to provide would mean refunds and compensation kick in. Universities aren’t allowed to say to new students “you might get a decent first term, you might not.” And for continuing students, what was legitimate to impose on students during an emergency becomes something students have much more agency over in a prolonged crisis.

But the reality facing governing bodies over the next month or so is that most will be being asked to input into or even sign off on budgets that would see the promise to students not being fully fulfilled – both in the medium “socially distanced” term, and potentially in the long term.

And this isn’t just a bit of inconvenient compliance. It involves governors properly interrogating the actual impacts on the student experience of a budget proposal – both generally and for specific groups of students – and making decisions that properly balance the interests of the institution as a financial entity/going concern, and the interests of the institution as a community of staff and students.

Risky business

In our work with students’ unions and student governors, their most common complaint about their work on governing bodies isn’t that they don’t understand the paperwork, or that they can’t get a word in edgeways – they tell us that councils and boards have a tendency to discuss the affairs of the institution in a way that seems to avoid the realities of the trade offs and moral costs required when making decisions about strategy. That avoidance may have been possible in a period of benign expansion – but is probably not a smart solution for the difficult decisions ahead.

So here’s a final top tip. It would be very very odd if you didn’t spend some time as a Governor over the next few months staring at a risk register. Maybe there should be a parallel one that looks at the risks to students that are coming – their learning, their employment prospects, their mental health, and so on. It’s the least a charity whose principal beneficiaries are students can do, isn’t it?

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