What does mumsnet have to tell us about students, consumerism and quality?

Jim Dickinson has been on mumsnet to see what they're saying about higher education, where he argues there are lessons to learn for academic quality

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Over the summer, I spent some time on the “Academic Common Room” section of Mumsnet.

Elsewhere on the site there’s a higher education forum that contains exactly what you’d expect it to – parents panicking about accommodation, threads that can’t quite fathom how little support there is for student maintenance, and questions about opaque admissions processes that look to me like ways of maintaining the illusion of scarcity.

But there’s another corner devoted to higher education. More often than not the “Academic Common Room” appears to contain things that I might fear some in the sector think, but rarely say out loud. And on there it’s the attitudes towards students on display from some that I find most dispiriting.

You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug

One recent thread was started by someone who teaches on an undergraduate programme and runs a specialist module where students will have that specialism named on their degree.

A student chose their module and had not attended a single workshop, nor had they bothered responding any of their emails. And despite the university’s academic regs stating three missed sessions can lead to disciplinary action, nothing had been done.

Not happy about that, they suggested that if the student submits the assignment, they’ll refuse to mark it – but they’d been told by both the programme leader and the head of department that they must.

Conscious that students are “paying customers”, the poster was unhappy that the student may end up being declared a specialist in an area where they have neglected to attend the teaching.

“Allegedly” the student had mental health issues but had managed to complete their placement for the academic year – and so in their view, passing the assessment would make a mockery of the whole system.

You can be the outcast

Set aside for a minute the multiple explanations that could be underpinning the tale. Park the suggestion that the academic involved thinks they can invent their own regulations to tackle their perception of the student. Place to one side the casual framing of “mental health” as some sort of pretence.

I get that this is likely a passionate practitioner that cares about their subject. But I’m worried.

One respondent, who says that attendance is becoming a real issue, says that no one is going to do anything about it because that would mean taking disciplinary action against half of the cohort.

Another bemoans that there’s no sense that it’s a privilege to spend time exploring subjects you’re interested in, to a large extent being underwritten by the taxpayer to do so (taking into account the under-repayment of student loans). A “perpetual sense of grievance” is for them a form of “emotional self-harm.”

One respondent says that if a student has legitimate mental health concerns, there should be evidence in the form of perhaps a conversation with a GP, student wellbeing or a support plan in place – which for me doesn’t sit well alongside national mental health stats and the Natasha Abrahart case.

Later in the thread, some suggest that the timetables in play in many universities don’t support students to balance work with study. Others suggest that the support on offer might need to improve. Some worry about the lack of social opportunities students have had, and the costs of coming onto campus when part-time work is essential to the funding model. But too often, that kind of empathy and curiosity tends to be shut down.

I worry a lot about this. We all need spaces and places to share our prejudices and fears – and I expect the posters are coming from a good place. But what feels like an erosion of understanding between staff and students’ situation can’t be good in the long term.

You can start speaking up

There is one helpful exchange. In response to that “I know they’re a paying customer”, one poster argues that they’re not:

Remember this. They are paying tuition fees to the university for the opportunity to study for a degree. What they do with those opportunities is up to them.

I’m not a huge fan of the framing here – it seems to me that in part, students are paying customers of a service that should both hit minimum standards and meet any expectations set for it, albeit that the desired outcome obviously does require effort from the student.

But it’s helpful because it relates to a set of conversations I’ve been having with SUs this summer about student representatives and quality.

You’ll recall that our framing of the Office for Students’ new “minimum outcomes” condition of registration has been to label it the “B3 Bear” – because like in the old TfL viral ad featuring a moonwalking bear, it’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.

Well, I’d now suggest that the B3 bear has some friends. Because the relatively unnoticed B1, B2 and B4 conditions – which replace the old Quality Code in England and judge programmes qualitatively against a minimum standard – are now in place too. And I don’t think most of the sector has noticed, nor realised the implications.

Kept on the inside and no sunlight

That matters for all sorts of reasons. The new B Conditions form the basis of that “boots on the ground” business studies exercise that OfS has been talking about. They are the basis of a new investigation into grade inflation at three providers that was announced last week. They will feature heavily in OfS’ blended learning review when it comes out.

But in some universities, you’d barely know that these new conditions had been agreed and implemented. Almost no SUs that I talk to have been altered to their existence by their university – an issue if those SUs are delivering student officer and course rep training in coming weeks. There’s a significant number of universities that carried out programme review and re-approval panels in May and June without even mentioning the new conditions. And with notable exceptions, wider efforts to draw student and staff attention to the new conditions appear to be perfunctory, or non-existent.

On one level I think that represents a threat. The new conditions are more detailed and in some ways more stringent than the old Quality Code, and will be enforced by a regulator more determined to expose, condemn and “root out” than a team of collegiate colleagues from the rest of the country. They are universal, represent a hard minimum for all programmes, and cover everything from staffing levels to hidden course costs and from student academic support to adequate independent study space – and that includes just before Easter.

Outside of quality professionals, I’m not convinced everyone knows that every programme is now supposed to be representative of current thinking and practices. It’s not clear that everyone knows that OfS requires programmes to offer module choices that ensure students are able to construct a coherent pathway. Does everyone know that a course that does not require students to develop and demonstrate intellectual skills, such as evaluating evidence, mobilising an argument, and solving problems, would constitute a concern? I’m not sure.

On a given programme, a staff team comprised solely of inexperienced teachers is not likely to be appropriately qualified and would be a problem for OfS. All students are supposed to be getting support relating to avoiding academic misconduct – including support for essay planning and accurate referencing, and advice about the consequences of academic misconduct.

Every programme should ensure the effective assessment of technical proficiency in the English language, every course should offer access to appropriate independent study space and students should not have to spend money on equipment, facilities or technology to access their learning. Is everyone aware and is everyone compliant? I’m not sure.

If OfS turned up tomorrow with its clipboards, this could (rightly in my view) be a real issue. But as well as posing a threat, I also think the new conditions represent a missed opportunity – and I want to explain why.

Sometimes a shadow wins

When I’ve been out talking to student reps over the past year or so with the (draft, and as of May 1st, implemented) conditions in hand, something magical has happened.

Previously when student representatives were invited to proffer feedback about their course, they were never really given a basis on which to do so other than through the emotional reflexiveness of “are you happy or sad”.

In the student-academic “partnership”, one of the elephants in the room that makes the partnership unequal is that academics get to judge the performance of students, including the prospect of a “fail” – but despite protestations to the contrary, that’s not really what happens in the opposite direction.

That means that outside of formal survey instruments, student representatives don’t really know what they are allowed to talk about, who they are allowed to talk about it to, and can’t really work out if the feedback they might have gathered from other students is reasonable or unreasonable. And without their own assessment brief or marking rubric, students might never know if what they’re experiencing is not just capable of being enhanced, but is below a mandated minimum.

This is a problem. Quality enhancement is effectively a process by which everyone works together to improve things beyond a minimum. If students and staff don’t know what the areas are they are allowed to discuss together, the process will suffer.

And if students are experiencing something below the “minimum”, quality enhancement is the wrong sort of conversation to be having. Even if they are directed to material that aids their understanding of what is not good enough, who is the student rep that’s going to bowl into a staff-student liaison committee and chat about their programme being “unacceptably poor”?

That poses a puzzle for quality assurance professionals. On the one hand, there are student engagement processes designed for enhancement that don’t ever seem to set out the areas that might be worthy of discussion. And on the other hand, who would dare to pump out material that makes clear what the B Conditions represent, in case students start piling in with petitions and complaints – and potentially OfS notifications? Isn’t that the opposite of the kind of staff-student partnership thes sector wants to create?

I wanna see you be brave

Well, dear reader, I have good news. It turns out – from an extensive series of experiments that I’ve been carrying out throughout the year – that those sorts of fears are unfounded.

In fact, when you explain the new conditions to students and their representatives and invite them to judge their on-programme experience against them, their eyes light up. They get animated about improvements, talk about things universities might not expect and discuss the sorts of things that would make a difference to their learning and success.

It gives them confidence.

Knowing what they have the right to as a minimum doesn’t make them upset – it makes them feel more able to talk about teaching and learning and assessment. Knowing the sorts of things they are allowed to expect makes them more creative and contributory. Knowing what they should be getting that’s outside of their department’s control enables some common cause. And knowing what should be happening that is inside of their department’s control makes the “partnership” more assertive.

And what that ultimately means is that students are less likely to be consumerist, rather than more.

The thing is, if universities just resist telling students what they’re entitled to, fail to enable them to raise a concern if an aspect of the service isn’t up to snuff or discourage them from raising low-level complaints, they won’t know the difference between what they can expect and what they have to work for. They won’t know the difference, in other words, between being able to demand an output rather than an outcome.

It’s also the case that if there is a failing that they don’t raise – by the time that impacts on their academic performance and they fail, it will be too late. Look at all those academic appeal cases that universities and the OIA see that consist of “I didn’t get x” or “my supervisor didn’t help me” but are dismissed as concerning academic judgement. No wonder there’s then a need for them to behave like they’ve paid for a degree and for universities to subtly, culturally, tolerate that kind of behaviour and in some cases accede to it. Because by then, it’s too late.

So to those on the mumsnet thread and everyone working in HE quality, trust me when I say – if you want to be more assertive about when a student has failed, you need to take steps to make sure students know when their university has failed – and know how it can be fixed quickly when it has. Because in the end, one of the basic foundations of trust in a partnership is about first knowing where you stand if it all goes wrong.

12 responses to “What does mumsnet have to tell us about students, consumerism and quality?

  1. Jim, this is an interesting piece about quality, and I’ll be looking into the new B conditions as a result of reading it.

    But I’d ask you to consider whether it was really necessary to hang it on the back of a set of scathing jokes about the biggest online female community in the UK.

    I’d ask you to think about the evidence which shows (over, and over, and over) that female academics do the majority of pastoral care, often unsupported by their institution, and reflect on whether perhaps the women writing on these posts do have a decent understanding – and probably quite a lot of experience – of students with mental health conditions. (If you read other threads on that forum, you’d know that this is the case.)

    Another interpretation of the initial post on that thread is a frustrated academic who cares about their subject and the training they give their students, who is not being supported by their institution to enforce the contract that has been agreed between them and the student.

    I’m not trying to be snippy. I don’t think a woman would ever have written this piece though.

    1. I agree. I’m not at all sure what the entire Mumsnet discussion added to an otherwise helpful piece about how an understanding of the B conditions could benefit students.

      Does Jim think that an online forum discussion between male academics about their students would have been any less ‘dispiriting’?

  2. It was useful to have some of the conversation going on outside of H.E. about H.E. highlighted in this article along with the commentary about the ‘Bs.’

    However the highly patronising tone Jim takes about a community he is not part of and the places people choose to spend leisure time just comes over as elitist and dismissive.
    EDI has a long way to go to tackle snobbery.

  3. I agree with all of the comments above criticising the author for the ill-advised reference to Mum’snet. I do get the sense that he has never been an academic or has a scooby about what it’s like to be one.

  4. Yes – I also agree with the comments above (especially the first one). These are academics discussing issues anonymously, in a safe space. Needlessly patronising and careless of context.

  5. I regularly visit that part of Mumsnet, and find it to be filled with people who are passionate about teaching, caring about students, but often exhausted from ever higher workloads. Some posters have mental health issues, and post there to get support in what they believe to be an anonymous, supportive (female) space.

    I’d invite Jim Dickinson to think about how the original poster must feel having their private post splashed all over this site, presumably without consent. Jim has form for this – he used one of my comments on here as a hook for a whole negative section on one of his pieces, and it made my mental health a lot worse. It’s poor journalism and not nice. Then again, Jim doesn’t seem to do much other than bash academics and universities on here these days, with no understanding – it seems to me – on what it is like to work in a university.

    I’d invite the Wonkhe editors to edit this article or take it down. An apology to that poster could be in order too.

  6. The reflexive disdain for Mumsnet is both a bit tired and detracts from an otherwise informative article. I usually genuinely like Jim’s articles, but I’d encourage him to question why, exactly, the assumed that his readers would automatically agree with him in his eye-rolling of Mumsnet. Did he not consider that a fair few of his own readers might ALSO (gasp!) be on Mumsnet? And that making a whole group of people a punching bag for a, let’s be honest, not very funny and actually pretty mean joke would not elevate his piece but distract from the point? It’s a tiny bit snobbish and a tiny bit sexist. Punching up is always funnier than punching down.

  7. Hi all. These are all reasonable comments and it’s pretty clear that instead of getting across that I think it’s a problem that this stuff is hidden and people feel they can’t have the conversation, I ended up sounding nasty and unnecessarily dismissive.

    I’ve amended – and I’m sorry.

  8. So, Jim Dickinson, you’re snarking at female academics who are concerned about students’ non-participation?

    It sounds as though you think experienced academics, teaching at the whiteboard face, day to day, are WRONG to bemoan students’ gaming of the system, their lack of participation, their conscious instrumentalisation of their own education? And you sneer at academics setting out the reality of HE today?

    I’m sorry, but you’re part of the problem. Most academics are dedicated & conscientious, Funnily enough, we actually care about our students’ quality of education.

    Sometimes I think we care more than the students do about the quality of their education & engagement.

  9. Come on over to MN, Jim Dickinson, and engage in a thoughtful discussion with actual academics with daily experience of shoring up an impoverished system, instead of snarking from a column you control. Because otherwise there’s a worrying level of intellectual cowardice in your work.

  10. If the article currently visible reflects the amendment you refer to Jim, I don’t think you have gone far enough. I do appreciate your apology.

    As for hidden conversations? Part of that thread very, very clearly echoes many of the conversations I have with overworked, caring, and dedicated colleagues on a daily basis (disproportionately women) about the boundaries we must set (AND the pastoral care and safeguarding we provide) to support effective learning and ensure that qualifications still carry value amid a challenging context that includes widespread student disengagement .

    It astounds me that anyone could read the thread and think that what the respondents (coalface lecturers/professors) really need is a dressing down in an influential blog.

    I didn’t think my morale could sink much further but this article has managed it.

  11. I agree with the points above and actually think the only way to salvage this article is to delete the whole Mumsnet section completely. It adds nothing. However aside from this, please retire the ‘B3 bear’. It isn’t cute, it isn’t funny and it does nothing to help with the clarity and transparency you seem to think we need in the sector. We need to plainly say what we are talking about and that is students completing their degrees and getting highly skilled jobs, whatever their background. It isn’t flipping Paddington.

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