The days go so slowly, but the weeks go by in a flash

Ahead of the lifting of a moratorium on unconditional officers to university applicants, Jim Dickinson considers how the "student interest" might be secured

Everything is reopening, folks! Timpsons. B&Q. Greggs. ‘Spoons. Universities.

On Monday the moratorium on unconditional offer-making and changes to existing offers (in England, and sort of everywhere else) is due to be lifted, having been first imposed on 23rd March, extended on 3rd April and extended again on 17th April. Maybe it will be extended again – but there will have to be a more substantial announcement at some point.

Back on 17th Nicola Dandridge promised that OfS will:

“Communicate before 4 May 2020 about the additional regulatory steps we are taking to protect the interests of students and support the stability and integrity of the higher education sector”.

The question is – what on earth (other than saying “off you go, fire out some unconditional offers”) might be announced about the “re-opening” of this particular “market”? Critics of the marketisation of the sector are keen to see some central planning imposed, but they have both the “keep calm and carry on” messages of the ministers to contend with, and a chorus of voices from pockets of the sector that are still holding on to the idea that we should privilege a Russell Group institution’s right to expand cheaper to teach courses in the interests of “student choice” – even if that choice results in institutions in other parts of the sector collapsing.

I can see why and how it would be tempting to at least envisage the pendulum swinging back a bit from “market” to “central control”, but on the assumption that we’re not about to get emergency legislation rammed through a Zoom parliament this weekend that closes the market, recreates HEFCE, bans competition between institutions and abolishes all fees (including for any international students), we should consider carefully how the existing market regulation works in the “student interest” the midst of a pandemic.

Make me an offer

Let’s start by thinking not so much about whether an offer being made right now is conditional, unconditional or conditionally unconditional. Let’s first ask ourselves – what exactly is it that you’re offering right now?

Chucking the last few weeks of teaching online, making some hasty revisions to assessment regs and switching some exams for open book timed essays is one thing – a whole term (or academic year) is another. If you’re evacuated from Alton Towers over a bomb scare at 4.30pm having been there all day, you’ll probably understand. But would you still go if you got an email saying “next week, when you come, we may run some rides but we may not”? And more to the point, should you?

The truth is that whether it’s online, offline or a hybrid – the idea that universities know what they’re offering come September is laughable. There’s just no way that the “material information” students are supposed to have can be ready, let alone accurate. All of which in theory means making offers where tuition fees are involved is rightly against the law.

Some of the practices that are banned should give the sector some serious pause for thought. Information that may be considered as misleading is very wide and is listed in the legislation itself – including things like the existence or nature of the service (or a part of it), its main characteristics, and even the nature and attributes of the trader. Just because OfS hasn’t asked you to rewrite your Student Protection Plan yet doesn’t mean that you can (or should) get away with still saying your finances are in tip top shape in it, if your internal meetings say they suddenly aren’t in reality.

If there’s a university in the country that knows what it will be offering in September for sure that’s one thing. If not they arguably should be instructed, now, to cease all offers and stop all advertising until they do know. Clearly, that would obviously also be a problem – so a sensible approach needs to be sorted out between OfS and CMA to at least give students better assurances than they have now about signing up for such a big commitment in the dark.

There’s a real urgency here. June 1st marks the day when a huge number of private sector accommodation contracts begin. Even if they can defer enrolling, are we really going to encourage students to sign up to expensive accommodation contracts that they may never use? And what do we do about the ones that have already signed on the line?

Time to discover…the olden days!

As well as tweeting out links to briefing notes on housing and mental health that in no way “endorse the actions” selected for inclusion, the OfS social media operation has also been busy this week retweeting hints and tips from locked down learners on the Discover Uni account.

The folklore says that students use the sort of data hosted on that website to make choices. In truth there’s always been a group of students choosing their most local provider, another group who will just take the currency of their A level points and use them to buy the most prestigious version of the subject they fancy, and the rest that some believe make decisions based on the weather on the Open Day.

Even if we pop through the looking glass and accept the logic of the rational student actor weighing up data factors – what use is all that now? The NSS offers no clues on what students think of a given institution’s success (or otherwise) at emergency pivoting to online. Suggesting that a higher scoring institution on teaching quality might be a better bet in a pandemic starts to look like an assertion that can’t be proved.

DK has already pointed out the folly of using historical employment data or the TEF. DiscoverUni also carries information on professional accreditations, many of which look shaky for existing students – let alone rewritten courses for 2020 entry where conversations haven’t begun.

Blame it on the baseline

If choice is now a crapshoot, perhaps at least we could have assured students that wherever they apply to, if it’s in England and on the OfS register it’ll hit a minimum standard.

But the track record basis for that assurance now looks dangerous, what was left of the traditions of careful Quality Assurance look to have been suspended in the rush to graduate everyone and rewrite courses for online, and the B3 bear has gone into hiding – because being good at preventing drop out six months ago is obviously not a useful way to predict whether a given institution has either the inclination, expertise or funds to get a student without a laptop through this or the Autumn term.

Students might ask themselves “who’s most likely to be in financial trouble” as a clue for the depth of cuts about to be made to the promised student experience, but it looks like OfS will be keeping that a secret. They could ask “who has the most appropriate protection on offer”, but OfS is intending to hold the line that SPPs don’t need a rewrite. Or they could look at the most recent batch of data OfS was using to judge baseline performance for their course or their student characteristic. But there’s no sign of any of that being released.

What are the “minimum standards” for institutions or courses going into September? Me neither.

High voltage

The bottom line is that a “regulated market” is what the Government and the regulator have said ensures the “student interest” is met. It relies on the regulator being able to assure students of three things – that information it collates is up to date and is a reasonable predictor of performance, that all courses are up to a minimum standard, and that students get what they’re promised. All three of which can’t work right now.

We need, in other words, a totally different way of imaging how a regulated “sector” works. It’s not at all clear how much of that can change by Monday, but we should at least stop pretending.

One response to “The days go so slowly, but the weeks go by in a flash

  1. Great article, but focussed on UG. For PG I would say the same largely applies but with bells on…

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