This September, students should be able to try before they buy

Jim Dickinson suggests that to boost confidence, we should let students experience higher education before they become liable to pay for it.

Both things can’t be true at once, surely?

A press release off the back of a vice chancellor and DfE round table quotes Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK as saying that it is “understandable” that prospective students may feel uncertain about what to expect this autumn, but wants to reassure them that “universities will provide a high-quality, engaging and positive experience”.

It might be “understandable” because about six weeks ago UUK was saying that in September, without a bailout “some universities … would come close to financial failure and be forced to reduce provision”. UUK even said that BAME students are concentrated in at-risk universities and “could be disproportionately affected if their institutions face financial difficulty and their institutions’ ability to provide a high-quality student experience is affected” – something the representative body is notably not highlighting now that the plan is to keep calm and carry on.

The only circumstances in which the two things can be true all at the same time is if this year’s student recruitment round proceeds and turns out as normal – and so it’s been very clear for a number of weeks now that the official line from all and sundry is to reassure and keep the fees cheques rolling in.

Gavin Williamson says that “there is absolutely no need for students to defer entry this year – unless they particularly want to” and Michelle Donelan says that “they’re probably not going to be able to travel – the labour market will be precarious. Do they really want to delay their academic studies when we have now got institutions that have spent even longer perfecting their online offer?”

I’ll not be too mean about the use of the word “perfecting” here – people are doing their best but “perfect” is probably a stretch – and I am keen to be as optimistic as possible both about the progress of the pandemic and what universities can achieve. Let’s say Gavin and Michelle are right for most students who can and will gamble, and it pans out well. The question is what we can do for those it doesn’t pan out for. And to answer it, we need a trip down memory lane.

Best course for u

Back in 2017 when the Department for Education (DfE) was consulting on the set up of the Office for Students (OfS), it had a policy problem to solve.

Many higher education students choose the course and institution that best fits their needs and career aspirations, and offers them the best learning experience and employment outcomes”

…says paragraph 96. Many – but not all of them.

The document quotes from a poll of applicants – that found that 40 per cent were having “second thoughts” or were “not happy” about their choice just days after the UCAS deadline. It also quotes from Destination of Leavers from Higher Education figures that showed that 1 in 5 leavers were “likely or very likely” to have chosen a different provider were they to have such an option again – and more than a third were “likely or very likely” to choose a different subject.

The HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey asks and finds similar things. 2020’s iteration tells us that less than two thirds would make the same choice again – with the rest choosing a different course, a different subject, both or something other than HE entirely. And these are results from students that stick it out long enough to be asked.

DfE’s document speculates on why their choices might have been wrong. It surmises that some students might realise that their chosen course, institution or wider student experience does not meet their expectations. In other cases, the “student’s personal circumstances may change” – a student might become a parent or a carer during their course, resulting in the need to take time out from their studies or move to a different part of the country to adapt to their new responsibilities. If studying part-time, they may need to “take a break from their studies as a result of additional work commitments”.

The evil transfer

Once you’re in, it’s really hard to get out – so back in 2017, DfE’s solution to this problem was to make OfS make providers get better at facilitating and promoting “student transfer”. “Transfer” is also the number one solution on offer to students in Student Protection Plans. If a student’s course, campus, or institution (or a material component of any of these) can’t run, most SPPs suggest that strenuous efforts will be made to move a student onto a comparable course within that provider, or move to another course at another provider.

The “promote transfer” duty eventually manifested as Regulatory Condition F2, and the latest OfS Annual Report tells us that there is a “high level of compliance with condition F2 among providers” but a “low but stable level of uptake” of these rights. We don’t (as usual) get any figures, but given the problem DfE was trying to solve and the figures that persist in the SAES (which says that what’s striking about its findings is how consistent they are year on year), I think we can reasonably conclude that a) the policy hasn’t worked, and b) this is a strange case of OfS patting itself on the back over outputs rather than outcomes.

Transfer always was a silly solution for some – if you have buyer’s remorse, you often want the right to take your purchase back for a refund rather than an exchange – and that’s if you’re buying a fancy toaster, not making a life-changing higher education decision. It’s always relied on the rather fanciful notion that all students are free to glide around the UK’s open days when plenty only have the freedom to choose their local provider or none. And look at who the failure harms – sector KPIs and OfS’ Access and Participation Dashboards remind us that non continuation remains higher for anyone that’s disabled, BAME, mature, or deprived. They’re not transferring.

Unprecedented

Now all of that would be bad enough – but pandemic. I’m going to make a leap here, and I’m hoping you will give this leap the benefit of the doubt. I reckon – call it a hunch – that come September there’s an increased risk that some students will realise that their chosen course, institution, or wider student experience, does not meet their expectations. And I’ll make another, if you’ll let me – that there’s a risk that a larger number of students than usual, both this term and in September, are facing major changes to their personal circumstances.

Even without a hunch – I’m asserting now that the information students have to make a decent choice about whether to go or not is hugely restricted because we don’t know where the pandemic will be in September, and they might not know whether their family will be able to financially support them. And the information needed to make a decision between providers – like roaming around visiting campuses to get a feel, or relying on their outcomes track record, or knowing how many banking covenants they’re about to breach, is all choice information that’s broken, or hidden, or restricted.

The question, therefore, is this. If the risk that the provision isn’t as a student expected is higher – and the risk that their circumstances have changed is higher – what do we do to allow them to change their minds… remembering that “transfer” wasn’t a policy that worked when the risk was much lower?

Solutions

First, we need serious and urgent reform to fee liability dates.

Almost every university in the country – using “distance selling” minimums (designed for timeshare scandals) – implement a two week cooling-off period before fee liability kicks in, and once you cross it you lose a whole year’s entitlement to student finance as a result (at least in England). Some set this “cooling off” period as two weeks from when you accept an offer, some from time it from when you enrol. Neither is anywhere near long enough at the best of times – it certainly isn’t this September. Let’s extend the “cooling off” period until at least 1 December –  which adds an incentive on providers to get student support, community, and belonging right next term.

This change may not need legislation. Before the pandemic, OfS was about to consult on issuing its own advice on Consumer Protection Law and student contracts for providers to comply with. Bear in mind that a contract term is unfair if it causes a “significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations under the contract to the detriment of the consumer”. Contracts giving students two weeks to work out if they made the right choice were arguably “imbalanced” in January – so given we know the “material information” students are relying on now is uncertain, those contracts definitely are now.

A “Condition C1” suggested behaviour that therefore calls on providers to give students “sufficient time” to judge whether they have made “the right choice for them” before incurring a fees liability in Ts and Cs world probably do it (with another suggestion of Dec 1st for standard UG courses, but flexibility for other provision). International students? Yes, they would very much be included, and that would very much play well on the international stage.

Next, we need to align all those cooling-off provisions with maintenance. It’s unbearably grim that thousands of students know they’ve made the wrong choice in the autumn, but feel they are forced to stick it out because they’ve already signed on the line for 12 months’ worth of student accommodation. Changes need to be made which enshrine the ability of students to leave their housing contracts if they leave their course – changes that should be in law, not in the realm of competitive advantage.

Doing so shouldn’t affect students’ entitlement to student loan funding in the future. Right now English UG students get “3 plus 1” years of funding – and use up one of those years if they drop out, even if they’ve only incurred a portion of a year’s worth of tuition or maintenance debt. Ideally, the state would write it off, but this should at the very least move to a “plus two” this September given the enhanced risks.

To be fair, some students that look set to bust this “3 plus 1″ rule because they’ve hit difficulties over the past few months and need to retake next year are allowed to argue “Compelling Personal Reasons” and get even more debt for next year under their belt – but there’s no such provision (yet) for mistakes that might be made in September, and scandalously, postgraduate students are being told by SLC that they can’t argue that the pandemic is a “compelling personal reason” for additional loan funding at all.

I’d like much better protections and provisions, and I know these proposals all need adapting around the nations. But time is running out, and we do need solutions to the policy problems of September that go beyond “fingers crossed” and help students to make their agonising choices. In other words, the government should do all it can to put “student choice, teaching quality and social mobility at the top of the agenda in higher education” – things that both the government and the regulator used to believe in.

Since we published this piece the SLC has been in touch to tell us their FAQ has been updated as follows: “Students who are unable to complete their previous master’s course in AY 2019/20 because of COVID-19 will be able to apply for CPR if they are starting a new course ‘from scratch’ in the future (in AY 2020/21 or later). However, they cannot get additional support for repeats or extensions on their current course, as is usual for postgraduate master’s funding”.

4 responses to “This September, students should be able to try before they buy

  1. If you endorse buyer flexibility, you need to endorse supplier flexibility. The article neglects the two-sided nature of the situation. It is true that the students are locked in very early. This is a ncessary consequence of the virtually fixed-cost nature of the University cost structure, due to the very restrictive labour contracts used to employ academic staff. Between University statutes and union agreements, universities have virtually no way to significantly reduce cash outlays within an 18-24 month period. As universities also have low operating margins and no significant endowments, allowing even 10% of students to drop out would close a number of them down. So, to move ahead in the (meritorious) way suggested, the entire economics of the university system must be amended to make it able to adjust to year-to-year changes in student preferences.

  2. Just a little thing, but important to understanding: English students get “length of course + 1” years’ funding. This is important as lots of students think they only get 4 years’ funding which affects their willingness to accept courses with integral Foundation years and confuses them about about integrated Masters ourses.

  3. I can think of a compromise option. It’s clear that part of the problem is that institutions are afraid of losing students to competitors and don’t make great efforts to encourage students to ‘transfer’ to other institutions. But I suspect if you drilled down on those third of students who wished they’d studied something else you’d find that it wasn’t ‘the institution’ per se but the subject they choose.

    I did my Bachelors at Macquarie University in Australia. I choose Psychology but that only had to make up 50% of my credit. I was permitted to choose Biology, Philosophy, Computer Sciences and a number of other introductory modules. It required sign-off from the head of the behavioural sciences but it was given freely. As long as you met the prerequisites for a module you were allowed to apply. This opened up three potential paths from my first year. The university calendar had fairly clear instructions explaining what modules were required to get a degree in any given subject and choose modules that kept those options open. All credit was valid towards the degree.

    I thought this was the norm until I spoke to friends at other institutions and then worked at three different institutions, including here in the UK. It surprises me just how rigid the module diet is for most courses. I’m not surprised students feel they have to stick with their first choice course rather than risk losing credit as invalid if they transfer to a different subject.

    I agree the tuition fees should suspended, possibly even for the first year for students, but the entirety of the cost should be taken on my the government, not the institutions. As it is, such financial pressure on institutions only forces them to lock in students by any means necessary. The only other option might be to provide better instruction to A-level students what their degree might be like, but I’d strongly advise against anyone attempting to get involved in A-level policy. There’s already too many fingers in that pie, all in a general state of tug-of-war.

  4. I have to admit that the line “this is a strange case of OfS patting itself on the back over outputs rather than outcomes” did actually make me laugh out loud.

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