Clearing up after the mess of a u turn

Time for a quick round up of what’s been going on in the aftermath of the chaos.

First the Office for Students released a press quote doing that thing OfS always does when there’s deep confusion and conflicting duties – it fails to clarify them, and says “won’t someone think of the disadvantaged”, reminding providers they have an APP to meet. Yesterday’s version was as follows:

Universities should also continue to honour the commitments that they have already made to support vulnerable and disadvantaged students as they firm up conditional offers. While it is for universities to make individual admissions decisions, students from disadvantaged backgrounds must not be allowed to slip through the net as admissions decisions are made.

For those yearning for clarity on admissions, the legal obligation to honour them and issues of capacity and consumer protection law, the next para wasn’t quite the “absolute clarity” to universities or students that OfS has been demanding of others all pandemic…

Now that students have their grades confirmed and their hard work recognised, they can look to consider and finalise their options. Where they now have the grades which would entitle them to their first choice of university or college, they should contact their university to see if they still have places available. This is a fast-moving situation, but I am confident that universities will do all they can to ensure that as many places as possible are made available. Where a course genuinely has not got the capacity to offer a place to a student, the university should discuss reasonable alternatives, including a place on another course or a place on the same course next year.

OfS chair Michael Barber tweeted “After the uncertainty of the last week, I am confident universities will rise to the occasion and see the opportunity to meet student aspirations and promote social mobility”, as if the only things stopping universities from rising to the occasion was “seeing the opportunity”. It’s the vast, innumerable challenges they’re seeing, Michael.

Who might support them with those challenges? When the big CAG u-turn was first announced, both Ofqual and Gavin Williamson were keen to stress that they were “already” working with universities on the implications. This appeared to come as some surprise to… universities. Gavin then doubled down on this assertion when, at 7.41am yesterday on BBC Breakfast, he announced he’s created a taskforce to deal with the fallout.

History will eventually tell us whether the creation in fact happened at 7.41am, but in any event once he’d repeated the assertion to Today it had to happen. During the day Michelle Donelan appeared and described the Ofqual system as “grossly unfair”, which is odd given that her boss had described it as “fundamentally fair” precisely a week earlier. Then later Donelan announced that the taskforce had met:

We will identify & resolve some of the challenges now faced esp around capacity. We will continue to meet daily as our priority remains students. A letter to students & VCs is also on the way!”

There’s no sign of those letters so far, but we did get a note from DfE’s press office as follows:

We are working closely with the higher education sector to understand the challenges facing universities and provide as much support as we can. Today, I led the first meeting of our new taskforce and I will hold meetings every day with the sector to resolve these issues. We are supporting universities, including by announcing our intention to remove temporary student number controls and working with them to help them prioritise students and uphold their first choice either this coming year, or as a last resort the following year.

We announced a package of support for the sector during the pandemic, including bringing forward tuition fee and research funding, and a scheme to assess any restructuring support higher education providers may need.”

Of some controversy was the membership:

The Universities Minister convened a taskforce today with higher education sector groups, including UCAS, the Office for Students (OfS), Universities UK, Guild HE, the Russell Group, Universities Alliance, and Million Plus.

NUS officials are obviously exasperated by the apparent dominance of “producer interest” on the group, and Martha Longdon, Chair of the OfS student panel wasn’t impressed either:

This week, students have offered up their own, often deeply personal and emotional lived experiences to move the sector to action and to help each other get the results they deserved. This narrative is vital to understand and resolve the challenges facing the sector in the year ahead. If you’re involved in decision-making and your decisions will impact students, look around the (virtual?) room. Are there any students there? Are their voices being heard? If not, ask why! And then… please, ask students!

DfE might have hoped that the taskforce and its meeting would give the impression that it had “gripped” the crisis, but instead it’s UUK’s intervention that’s made the news today as people start to panic about “selecting” universities hoovering up students, causing the very problem that the now removed numbers cap was designed to avoid.

A letter from UUK is across the papers, and highlights the problem of “full” courses (esp where there are still caps in areas like medicine), the problems of scaling up in a socially distanced pandemic, the legal position on offers and tries its luck at removing some of the conditions on the bailout package.

On that, the Times says a bailout could be coming:

Poorer institutions are losing out. Ministers believe that they will have no choice but to give them a bailout, which research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests could be at least £140 million. The Treasury is understood to be assessing the cost of providing such additional financial support. Mr Williamson and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, are expected to hold talks in the coming days.

We don’t yet know whether the issues we’re hearing about this morning are individual narratives affecting a small number of students or whether there are major “market” moves happening – UCAS figures will give us clues later, and we may have to wait anyway as UCAS is telling providers that it’ll be the end of the week until CAGs get to universities.

In truth, the sector wide impact is quite hard to predict right now. Some like to imagine that there’s a kind of tariff vacuum cleaner sucking applicants up the league tables. If the Russell Group creates 10 extra places, the theory is that in the end a university at the other end of the tables loses 10.

But that thumb in the air relies on lots of assumptions. We don’t know how many extra students overall this year are trying to get in, nor how many would be happy with a nudged deferral. If there are more, they may all be bunched at the “top” of the tables – but more likely will be distributed. Lots of students will just stick with where they settled last Thursday. And it’s not automatic that students just “trade up” even if, pre-CAGs, they had to “settle down”.

There’s three types of undergrad (and they’re not necessarily a third each). There’s ones that commute, for whom choice isn’t much of an issue and most of whom that had a “near miss” are in already. There’s ones that choose, who usually go surprisingly regional even though they’re away from home, where reputation bands matter but lots is on the “feel of place”. Most of them will be settled already. And then there’s the rest – those that “buy” the best reputation they can buy with their tariff points.

Maybe the press stories are really all about a small number of that third category – and “Charlie Buckets” at that. Maybe the big impact will be on the old 1994 group – trapped as they are in the middle market. As I say, we’ll have more clues with each batch of UCAS numbers.

And there are still big bear traps to avoid. We might want to avoid 80s and 90s style “crash pad accommodation”, in the middle of a pandemic, in university towns and cities ill-prepared for even a modest expansion of student numbers. And every international student admitted to a UK university that has “full courses” will be accused of prioritising filthy lucre over “our kids”, however unhelpful or ignorant-of-the-detail that assumption. It will be an allegation that is worse if it turns out a chunk of those international students either can’t or won’t show up.

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