Should students take the gamble?

Jim Dickinson considers whether and how universities might encourage students to not defer in September.

We got there in the end. It was complicated for some courses, and held back by either a fear of OfS bearing down on grade inflation, or a grizzled cynicism about trusting students a bit.

But eventually, most students got a version of a “no detriment” policy – some ability to automatically have a claim that they were facing extenuating circumstances taken into account and a mitigation deployed.

But that was for this term. What about September? What if new international students wasn’t the big issue we thought it was – and it’s deferral, both for new and continuing students, that’s at least as big an issue if not bigger?

You cannot defer your studies because of the coronavirus outbreak. Deferrals will only be considered for exceptional circumstances.”

You’d laugh if it wasn’t so brutal. Several higher education providers are actually saying out loud, this morning, that a global pandemic isn’t exceptional. A world event that has triggered a damaging lockdown causing tens of thousands of deaths and closed almost every campus building in the country a few weeks after a massive industrial dispute. Nah, we’re gonna need a bit more from you.

It wouldn’t be so bad, but this is the same higher education sector that is claiming that every change it’s had to make to every course both this term and in September is because of coronavirus – no questions asked. If you’re thinking of not paying us, the burden of proof is high. But if we’re thinking of not delivering on our side, down it goes again. Just accept it’s the virus will you.

Mitigating mitigations

Not everyone is being quite so difficult. Some are saying “we’ll look at it case by case”, which is either code for “we’ll deal with cases dangerously inconsistently” or “we’ll filter your personal predicament through the optic of our own social understanding and our department or institution’s financial position”. Neither are a good look.

Of course if every continuing student deferred we’d have a problem, and the predicament that higher education providers find themselves in right now is unacceptably unenviable. Let everyone defer that’s asking to, and you either don’t get to Christmas – or you end up having to make deep, swingeing cuts to your offer to survive.

When you’re faced with choices like that, and you add that to the sensation of being on a working group whose members have been trapped in bedrooms staring into webcams all day for three months, you can see how you might end up believing that what you’re saying and doing is in the “student interest”. It’s like we’re in a giant Derren Brown special, as he hacks university senior team Zoom calls for “an audacious social experiment demonstrating how group manipulation can lead ordinary people to commit appalling acts”.

Why might students be deferring? Yep, for some it will be because of these reasons in the Telegraph or the Times. But not all of them.

  • Some may be struggling and want a break.
  • For some students, online may not be in their support assessment.
  • Some may live at home and commute and have, or family members have, an underlying health so they need to be very cautious about “blended”.
  • Some have limited resources (e.g. accessible equipment for online learning and 24/7 internet access) and may not have quiet space in their home to study – and may want to defer.
  • Some have to work to supplement their income to afford to study at university. If part time work is not available, they may feel they cannot afford to go back.
  • Some international students are horrified about how we’ve handled the pandemic, and want at least for it to settle a bit before returning.

Others are worried about being allowed to return at all. Some are worried about quarantining arrangements. Some are terrified at the cost of flights or the recession coming in their own country. If they study online, will the time difference allow it? Will the qualification be recognised? Will universities insist on synchronous? And if it’s all asynchronous, how are they interacting with class mates – on message boards?

See saw

So yes, of course lots of students want to pause. The contractual position isn’t really in students’ favour on this one, but if the Office for Students (OfS) and/or the Competition and Markets Authority were working effectively, at least the see-saw of power here could tip back a bit.

Yes, students don’t have the automatic right to just pause an ongoing contract. But forget if students have been personally affected or not – at the same time, universities don’t have the automatic right to just convert an entire course to online delivery with a soupcon of contact and a branded Google Cardboard in the post and claim there’s no breach of contract.

What you could do is enshrine a right for all students to pause, either generally or at least during the pandemic. Standard consumer law is pretty useless for students, but there are ways to get providers to do better. It would involve converting what has been pretty much standard benevolent practice in the past (letting students defer) into a universal expectation/right. I’m sure it can be done. When it wants to, OfS seems to find all sorts of powers down the back of the staff room sofa at Nicholson House. This is your time to shine, folks.

A right to defer would be rough on some providers and some courses – especially those with hard-to-reliably-digitise-with-a-straight-face components like studios and labs and placements and years abroad. It’s also tough on providers who already take on the lion’s share of the heavy lifting on WP, if it turns out that the student precariat are the ones least likely to want to launch headlong into a risky September.

Universities can’t be high quality (that takes at least 10 years) run courses (usually three years) and withstand demand shocks like Covid-19 (over one year) simultaneously. But where it’s rough is where you could then inject some cushion funding. Some bits of the economy can re-open, some can’t. Some pubs can open, some will need support. Some shows at some theatres will work, some won’t. Some continuing students are more likely to want to furlough their course, and they need the state to help ensure that course is still there when they’re ready (both student and course) to resume.

You could protect them in other ways. OfS is still saying that providers don’t need to update their Student Protection Plans. But when almost none of them mention years abroad, placements or studio/lab heavy courses being at risk, it means that they are not an accurate reflection of risk to students – so the solutions if the risks crystallise are useless. “We would still expect providers to enact their SPP” says OfS – but all the plans say is “you could transfer”. To where, exactly? A hole in the time-space continuum?

New students

Of course none of that fixes the “new students want to defer too” problem. This “free trial” version of taking the risk out over in Canada is better than it looks (it’s about a month once you align term dates) and ought to be on the agenda across the UK sector – not least because most universities have contracted the period to the absolute minimum in recent years. It doesn’t solve the aligned accommodation problem, but it helps.

Mark Cover from dataHE’s proposals on this are fascinating – he argues over on HEPI that universities should use two incentives (a free postgraduate year, plus underwriting accommodation risks) to build student confidence and save the sector billions against the alternatives.

They are fascinating because they highlight a genuine policy problem at the heart of the state’s approach to the pandemic and its impacts on higher education. The student number control (DfE) and the proposed new “sector stability“ condition (OfS) are designed to somehow “smooth the pain” so that we don’t end up with a group of providers and provision collapsing where others thrive by scooping up students that they wouldn’t usually take.

The SNC has its own problems, but the OfS E6 condition has a very nasty side effect. We are in a position where it looks like Government will not be offering any collective incentives or reassurances to students – DfE is saying “it’s up to universities”.

But if any university was to take Mark up on his ideas, they would likely fall foul of OfS’ new sector stability registration condition. The regulator wants to stop providers from “increasing their domestic student intake” which might “draw students away from other providers, increasing the exposure of those other providers to significant financial risk”.

OfS isn’t controlling the numbers, only the tactics. How do you differentiate between tactics that increase your intake at the expense of other providers and tactics that stop people from trying to defer? You start to think that anything you might do for students – even something sensible like this – might cause an OfS fine unless everyone else copies you.

The student interest

This is harder still because OfS persists in insisting that “the use of incentives” might result in students not “choosing the provider or course best suited to their needs”. For example, in the now paused review of admissions, it said:

Some providers seek to improve their progression rates by offering discounted fees for postgraduate study, to their existing undergraduate students. This may be of concern if the offer of discounted fees leads students into making choices about postgraduate study which are not in their best interests.

Apparently students using the TEF to make study choices is good, rational and in their interests – but students using price are to be protected by OfS officials from their own stupidity. I could make a decent case for those to be swapped. But either way the danger is that DfE is offering no incentives or protections to not defer, and OfS is specifically discouraging universities from coming up with their own ideas.

Maybe there’s a simple solution here for the regulator. Do a bit of polling, or get your student panel in. If even a handful of students are clamouring for the right to not be offered a free postgraduate year, or the right to not be able to leave an accommodation contract in the event of a second spike – because doing so might “distort their choices” – I’ll eat my hat.

Instead, maybe we should listen to what students are saying about why they’re worried about September, show we’ve listened, do all we can to incentivise people to come up with solutions, and give students the right to reject them – risk free – if they’re still not sure. Why is that too much to ask?

Leave a Reply