Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Applicants to medicine courses at the University of Exeter are in the news – they’re being offered free accommodation and £10,000 cash if they agree to defer.

We do, of course, have a record number of students that have applied to study medicine this autumn – up 20% on last year. And we’ve got grade inflation coming. So when you add in that more students than usual at Exeter have accepted their place to the fact that universities are under a legal duty to admit students they’ve offered a place to, you’ve got a little crisis.

It’s an interesting story because the fact that places are formally capped, along with the complexities and dependencies involved in the delivery of medicine (labs, available and often very expensive academics, placement supply and so on) means it’s not an easy subject to expand.

But no such limits apply for many other courses – or indeed their modules, or therefore at an aggregate level their providers. On one level that should raise concerns for students and staff about what “counts” as full as we enter clearing season – because it’s not easy to recruit, build and stretch the resources when expansion happens too quickly, yet all the incentives right now are to do just that.

And while expansion can happen at an aggregate level both in a provider and sector-wide, without sensible constraints like the size of lecture theatres getting in the way, some of the expansion can also mean rapid contraction. And that’s also a major problem.

I want it that way

Many people argue that letting the aggregate course and subject preferences of 17-year olds determine the size and shape of the higher education system and the graduates it produces is a bad way to run the sector.

I’ve never been quite so sure about that. There are some pretty awful outcomes and side-effects of the rampant marketisatisation (and financialisation) of higher education and the wider student experience, but I do sometimes wonder what an “alternative” would do to student choice – dictate what they’re allowed to aspire to study, and where they’re allowed to study it?

In any case, we are where we are – deeply entrenched in a market system – and while I support and contribute to efforts to develop meaningful long term alternatives, I’ve also spent years begging for forgiveness from anti-marketisation types for being wonkishly concerned about market regulation.

In other words, if we must have a market, are there types or forms of competition that could be beneficial? And are there ways to reduce harm for the people that its worst effects impact upon?

Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache

Right now in England in a system where competition and choice is supposed to drive up quality, the position of government remains that the possibility of “exit” (of a course or a campus or even a provider) is a good thing:

While institutional closures happen infrequently in the higher education sector, as part of a diverse and innovative sector providers may need to stop providing a course or close a campus. Managed course changes and orderly institutional exits are a feature of a healthy, competitive and well-functioning higher education market.”

As I say, even without a “fees” voucher, I have a moderate level of sympathy with that position in principle – in a world of finite resources it doesn’t make much sense to spend money on something that students aren’t enrolling in when we’d want in principle to spend the money on the things they are enrolling in.

But this is higher education, not fridges or bags of maltesers or vape shops – so notwithstanding the need for regulation that protects provision in some subjects in some parts of the country, or regulation that causes providers to improve access and participation work when the incentives wouldn’t make that happen otherwise, you need some protections in place.

Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake

For staff, these ought to be about (much) better (redundancy) consultation and compensation. But for students they ought to be about keeping our promises to them. After all:

Higher education can be a life-changing experience. Students invest significant amounts of time, commitment, and financial resources in their education and expect to receive value for money in return. Reforms will give students greater clarity about what they can expect from their provider, and greater consistency about what would happen if unexpected problems occur, including if their course, campus or institution were to close.”

So goes the intro to a Department for Education (DfE) document on student protection plans from 2016, which were introduced as a concept as part of the package of reforms embodied in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The idea is deeply flawed but fairly simple really. Every provider has to develop a plan that sets out and assesses the risks to continuation of study faced by its students – cutting that by course, campus and characteristic – and has to get it approved by OfS. If those risks crystallise, the plan rolls into action.

I won’t repeat here the myriad problems with the plans we have, and I won’t go over again how odd it is that former OfS chair Michael Barber said the ones we have aren’t fit for purpose as far back as November 2018, yet to this day OfS still hasn’t got around to revising and toughening up the guidance that surrounds them.

What is clear is that relatively, whole course, campus and provider closure is pretty rare. There are serious questions to ask about how plans would be executed if a provider collapsed that OfS never really answered with its mutant Student Protection Plan variant it developed last year, and major questions surround things like “teach out” when a course (or cluster of courses) does get withdrawn but staff start to inevitably desert the sinking ship.

But with respect to those going through that, I have a much much bigger concern than that, affecting far more students and staff.

Am I your fire? Your one desire?

There’s a genre of social media and student newspaper content that I started to pick up on last summer that surrounded the sudden pandemic-induced restriction of optional module choices on your average degree programme. Across a whole range of disciplines and a range of providers, it appeared that some providers were busy merging or dropping options to maximise the chances of what they were putting on actually happening – and not really giving students any meaningful opportunity to reject those choices.

Some might argue that there was a level of inevitability about that during a global pandemic seeking to protect the student interest. Others might more cynically argue that in some cases, cuts to courses were carried out under the excuse of the pandemic. But either way, those students didn’t get what they were promised on a whole range of levels in 2020/21.

What’s fascinating is the way in which that process has apparently intensified and spread. I’ve seen and heard a whole swathe of examples since last summer – but when I put this out on social media the other day, my DMs cup was suddenly overfloweth:

Now I can see that we’ve fallen apart

What I’m not talking about here are minor changes to individual modules, which I’ve seen are often the subject of overzealous compliance managers in universities. If you work somewhere where changing the font or the case studies on a set of slides needs several committees to meet and forms to fill in, let me assure you now that this is not “CMA rules”, this is nonsense.

The way it works is like this. If you book to go to Chessington World of Adventures, and they’ve changed the theming on your favourite ride – that’s progress. If on the day a couple of rides are out of action, that’s bad luck. The point is that in both of those cases, the overall experience is materially and substantially that which you were promised. But if you arrived and 15 rollercoasters was now four, and the Zoo which was supposed to have a hundred animals in it now has ten, there’s a problem. The former examples are immaterial, and the latter examples are material.

In higher education, the definitive (but actually quite unhelpful) interpretation of consumer protection law as it relates to modules is contained in Competition and Markets Authority guidance from 2015, and that guidance says that the following is likely to be “material” when it comes to an undergraduate course:

Core modules for the course and an indication of likely optional modules, including whether there are any optional modules that are generally provided each year”.

But then in its guidance on creating Student Protection Plans, OfS says that providers have to consider the risks of a provider, course, campus or “material component” of a course disappearing.

What providers therefore tended to do in batch one of SPPs is argue that only core modules are material – so that’s what gets protected in a round of cuts or a teach-out. But that has then meant that in many cases whole swathes of options just disappear.

But we are two worlds apart

In my DMs there are hair-raising stories of whole defined pathways going – versions of the old story where I became involved in a case involving students on a BSc Computer Science course that all wanted to be software engineers, but the academics teaching software engineering had all been poached by Microsoft that summer, so they had to choose again. “They’re optional, so not protected”, they were told, as their career dreams evaporated.

There are tales of whole specialist modules being merged into “DIY specialism” modules, where students are told “you can still follow your dreams, we just won’t have dedicated academics for each of them”. Others report being bundled into a Zoom room at Christmas and being told “we’re losing eight modules, and obviously if you’re not happy, you can leave and we’ll help you to”.

Some involve star lecturers taking their modules with them when they’re poached with no efforts made to guest them back. Others describe being told that their department is facing “financial challenges” and having to suddenly re-choose some or all of their options some way into their course. Others describe losing all of the practical options from a programme.

More often than not, we’re talking Trigger’s Broom/Theseus Ship territory – where the overall size and shape of the optional module catalogue has just dramatically reduced from where it was on application. Materially.

I’m staring, right now for example, at a BA English Literature course at a large university in England that has strong student satisfaction and strong work or further study stats. Right now, I see eight modules from which students are to choose six in their second year. Thanks to archive.org, I can see that that was “choose six from twenty” just a couple of years ago. Was that breadth of choice protected for existing students when the cuts kicked in?

What I’m getting at is that in an environment where students have so little power, where chopping and changing in response to demand is a “feature”, and where everyone is concerned about the numbers, there’s a strong and heightened risk that students won’t get what they were promised. So if we can’t avoid the impacts of marketisation, we could at least have a regulatory environment that smooths out those changes so we minimise their impact on existing students.

And anyway – now thanks to the Skills Bill we’re thinking about provision at the modular level, so we need to be thinking about protection at the modular level too.

Before the next round of catalogue cuts, tougher and clearer SPP guidance on material changes to courses is needed now. It would be in the interests of students, staff and the sector as a whole – and would be a way for the regulator to keep one of the promises made to students of its own.

2 responses to “When do culls of module catalogues become material?

  1. Good article that raises crucial Known Unknowns! Reminds me of Uni X that offered a Masters in the Comparative Literature of Continents Y & Z. Feisty mature students A & B began the degree course p/t; by the point that they had ‘done’ Continent A the teaching staff for B had disappeared and all the U could offer was yet more stuff on A. They complained and were brushed off; they went to the OIA which initially accepted U’s stance that somehow this was a matter of academic judgement. They carried on and the OIA reversed its stance, and the U eventually conceded something had indeed gone wrong – but years later they were still left arguing over what compensation was due. Hence I have two tins of Heinz products as props for talks on the U-S B2C contract – one of baked beans and one of baked beans with added sausages. If you bought the latter and the sausages were missing, Heinz would not try and wriggle away from your complaint and would doubtless supply free an entire year’s worth of this tasty product. Simple misrepresentation in contract law – ‘I said I would do A & B but now I can’t be bothered to deliver B!’. Or an unfair material contractual change in consumer protection law (‘I am just willy-nilly going to remove half of the degree title, so stop moaning!’). Us really do have to put some effort into ensuring their production lines are geared up – and remain geared up – to deliver what their recruitment marketing has pledged (unless a chunky bribe is enough to get the S to accept a material change to the contract…).

  2. As an administrator, the student experience is central. One of our greatest risks to this is courses/modules being created and run by 1 or 2 academics, then their leaving, leading to the problems above. So, we are trying to develop team teaching, where a team develops and runs a module, so we are able to provide greater certainty over modules.

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