The race against time to graduate new key workers

What impact will the changes made to support students during the pandemic have on professional qualifications? The QAA's Luke Myer has been talking to PSRBs and ministers.

Luke Myer is Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the QAA.

Which courses matter most?

Well, for the immediate future, we have an answer. On 7 January, the Department for Education set out which courses were “most important to be delivered in-person in order to support the pipeline of future key workers”. Future medics, healthcare workers, teachers, social workers, dentists and vets were permitted to return to campus or placements – where necessary.

The last year has been disruptive and challenging for the whole sector. But when it comes to professional routes like these, the challenge has been compounded. It’s not easy to meet placement hours or core competencies when your chosen industry is at the frontline of a deadly virus, or has been required to close their doors for weeks at a time. Last week, QAA convened a roundtable discussion between the Universities Minister in England (Michelle Donelan), Universities UK, and 17 of the UK’s professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) overseeing some of these routes. The priority: how to help these students graduate on time.

PSRBs were clear that it would not be straightforward.

Not the time nor the place(ments)

Top of the list of PSRBs’ worries is placements. DfE may have opened up campuses for some students, but across professions many urgently need practical experience in the workplace. Some professional environments are difficult to make Covid-secure while maintaining learning outcomes. Dental clinics, with their close contact and air-flow infrastructure, are one example. Across the UK, dental placement coordinators are opening wide and saying “argh”.

Several PSRBs have reduced practical and placement requirements already, which has helped students to progress, but there’s a worry about how it might impact on the skills and confidence of graduates. These are students who will be entering challenging jobs, in a difficult labour market. PSRBs stressed that this cohort will need support, including a comprehensive and safe induction to the workforce. Some PSRBs expressed concern about international mobility for graduates – on top of Brexit, the New York Times has dubbed the UK “plague island” – as well as questions about access for international students.

Student support

Support needs start much earlier than graduation. Some professions have seen a significant number of extra first-years as a result of last year’s A-level results. Others have seen drops in both registrations and progression rates. Some prospective students are unsure how to meet admissions requirements on work experience. Some current students are working without access to adequate wireless or devices, and some need specialist software, available only through enterprise licenses on providers’ networks.

There are those students who are considered “key workers”, but aren’t sure if they’re entitled to school access for their children, or death-in-service benefits for their families. There are those with additional caring responsibilities, or going through personal trauma, or stepping in to work at the frontline. The pandemic has closed doors both physically and metaphorically, having compounded student poverty and structural inequality. All students have experienced huge disruption, and providing adequate support is essential.

How detrimental is No Detriment?

While PSRBs are conscious of the need to support students, however, many are worried about “No Detriment” policies and how they’ll be viewed by employers. Since April last year, students across the UK have been calling for safety net plans to be implemented, to ensure that their results aren’t unfairly disadvantaged by Covid-19 restrictions. NUS has demanded “No Detriment” at every institution, calling for “academic justice” and “responsible and compassionate leadership”. Although implementation has varied – UUK have asked providers to ‘take these decisions locally’ – the policies have been a demonstration that collective student pressure is alive and well.

Among areas of concern for PSRBs is a worry that students themselves may end up becoming stigmatised by employers as a “Covid cohort”. In professions requiring gateway qualifications, PSRBs have been firm that standards must be maintained. These are one-off qualifications allowing students lifelong access to a career, whether designing buildings, saving lives, or representing defendants in court. PSRBs are concerned that relaxing standards carries a risk to public safety.

For the assessments which do go ahead, some professional bodies are wary about whether they are rigorous and secure enough, particularly to protect against academic malpractice. Providers have been proactive in agreeing principles around academic integrity, following the guidance. But there are currently over 900 essay mill companies operating in the UK, and at QAA we’ve seen the ways in which many of them are exploiting the pandemic to target students. Tackling them will take collective action and policy change.

To cap (and gown) it off…

Despite these concerns and others, professional bodies remain confident that core competencies and standards are still being met. There has been an extraordinary flexibility from professional bodies and providers in the last year, with emergency revisions to standards allowing learning to continue and students to progress. It is quite an achievement to have adapted so dramatically while maintaining secure standards. One point of agreement between PSRBs is how grateful they are to providers for the sheer speed at which they’ve worked to implement changes effectively.

Continuing to extend that flexibility will be tough, and there are some incredibly difficult issues to resolve. These will only continue as future problems around admissions, deferrals and progression rear their heads. No-one should kid themselves that there is a ready-made solution for government or providers to implement. But on all sides, there is a real, shared commitment to work collaboratively to make it work. Many professions are still expecting their students to graduate on time and with secure awards; Wonkhe should still be able to use its favourite graduation photo this summer. But for the key workers of tomorrow, the Covid-19 rollercoaster has just begun.

Note: the above is based on the views of a select group of PSRBs, especially in ‘key worker’ professions – PSRBs are diverse and many, and will vary in their approach to specialised problems.

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