Boots in Beds

Another OfS investigation report reminds David Kernohan of one of last year's moral panics, and points the way to the next phase of investigations

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Another Office for Students “boots on the ground” report has emerged – this one covering business provision at the University of Bedfordshire.

We’ve still never been told officially how these work or what the usual approach is – I’m piecing the pattern together from observations, and it looks in that context that this was at the longer timescale end of what we have seen, though it still involved the 1+2 pattern of visits and the lengthy period of access to the virtual learning environment.

diagram comparing the four investigation processes we know about so far

The impetus for this investigation appeared to have been continuation rates, so we see the report citing a 59.3 per cent continuation rate over four years across all undergraduate courses in the business school. The OfS investigation team highlighted three major concerns from the exercise – all of which pertain to conditions B1 (academic experience, specifically 1.2 , 1.3d, and 1.5d) and B2 (resources, support, and student engagement).

  • The investigation found that the “traditional full-time student model”, operating during standard teaching hours, offered limited flexibility for non-traditional students
  • The investigation noted “limited central monitoring of student engagement” with a reliance on individual academic staff to proactively monitor student engagement than than a centralised set of support services.
  • And there was also a finding that problems with continuation had persisted despite numerous focused initiatives and process changes – the team suggested that this pointed to a poor understanding of the reasons behind continuation problems, and poor management processes

As always, these are investigation findings, and do not represent a regulatory ruling. The team also looked at condition B4 (assessment and awards), but did not identify any concerns.

One wrinkle this time round was the inclusion of detailed information about Bedfordshire’s partnership and validation arrangements. In particular, the “associate college” arrangement with the London School of Commerce and Health Sciences (LSC) – which covered nearly 1,000 undergraduate students on courses that included a foundation year. Because we see these in sector data as students both taught by and registered with the University of Bedfordshire, this is the first time we’ve been able to understand the size and shape of this provision.

But if you were hoping the OfS investigation team got stuck into this fascinating area I am afraid you will be disappointed. After the investigation had begun, on 25 November, Bedfordshire submitted a Reportable Event to OfS – stating that the partnership with LSC had been “terminated by mutual agreement” and current students were being taught out. Apparently it was no longer making enough money to be viable, following Brexit.

The main findings do give pause given previous regulatory interventions. Apparently, provision is too focused on in-person 9-5 Monday to Friday, which is not suitable for students with “multiple sets of other competing responsibilities” (caring, employment, childcare). The university as a whole had been shifting towards blended learning (with up to 25 per cent of teaching being delivered online), but the business school was substantially behind the curve on that. In fact, recent guidance (March 2023) stated that only supporting material may be provided online and all teaching must take place face-to-face. Wherever could they have got that idea?

It is the physicality/temporality of accessing teaching that the investigation report is concerned with (if only we had an NSS question about timetabling…) – not the accessibility or suitability of the actual teaching itself:

“It is worth noting that the assessment team did not find issues with the quality of teaching at the university. Indeed, students, when asked about the quality of teaching in meetings, were generally positive about their experience and the dedication of individual academic staff. Yet if a significant minority of the cohort was not able to engage with the teaching, this calls into question the appropriateness of the delivery model for the university’s cohort.

With monitoring of absences and disengagement inconsistent, and some evidence of management by initiative with evaluation and reflection on the success of these initiatives not clear, it does feel like there are things the team can profitably learn from this report – it’s a good example of the value of external quality assurance visits. And there are plans afoot to make changes – in monitoring, intervention, and course design.

There’s linked concerns about the personal academic tutor (PAT) system – where students are not engaging, there is no clearly documented way for academics to feed this in to central support teams despite this being a principal marker for engagement and attendance. Academics, it turns out, might need more support in the PAT elements of their role. The clear suggestion is that some kind of learner analytics system would be preferable – and indeed this will be piloted in the university during 2023-24.

Short of mandating particular approaches to teaching delivery, it is not clear what a regulatory response should or could be. The lesson the wider sector could take is perhaps not to listen to possibly unwise comments about blended learning by ministers and regulators in the national press.

2 responses to “Boots in Beds

  1. So the question here is at what point does the University alter or change its delivery mode, presumably the students knew what they were buying – isn’t this a bit like blaming the car showroom because the car i purchased wont fit in my garage.

    1. Agreed. It surely comes down to how the courses were marketed. If the provision was accurately described as a full-time, face-to-face course requiring 9-5 attendance then is hard to see on what basis the university can be expected to provide anything else (except for reasonable adjustments for students who cannot access this model of delivery due to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act). Indeed, switching to blended learning might well be an actionable failure to provide what was promised to those students who like the current model. On the other hand, if the marketing promised a flexible learning experience and this is not actually being delivered, that’s a rather different matter….

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