1. Actively monitoring quality
One issue the committee could get to the bottom of is her repeated assurance to MPs that the quality of provision is being “actively monitored” by OfS. Last October she told MPs that:
We are monitoring the situation in terms of quality, because it would be unacceptable for a student to be paying those tuition fees and not getting the quality or support.
When she said “we”, she meant by meeting with OfS:
I meet with the Office for Students regularly, sometimes a few times a week, if not daily if the need arises. The Office is a key member of our task force. They sent out clear messages last week to universities on the expectations around support and communications with students. Throughout this process they have been monitoring the quality.”
Back on Feb 3rd she said:
We are clear that every student deserves to receive quality, quantity and accessibility in terms of their tuition and this is being actively monitored by the Office for Students.
The problem is that OfS hasn’t actually been “monitoring the quality” of provision at all. As far as we can make out it put in some calls to universities who were moved into DfE Tier 3 in the Autumn term to see how they were handling that, and has been following up on some of the notifications it gets. And given it basically regulates on outcomes, maybe Donelan hasn’t read its guidance on quality and standards during the pandemic from last April, which said:
We do not therefore expect to initiate any action in relation to performance on student outcomes until normal regulatory activity is resumed.”
Back on Feb 3rd Mark Harper MP asked about this “monitoring”:
She said in her earlier answers that the Office for Students was monitoring the quality of that education carefully. I have looked at its website, but what it does not seem to do is publish any information on what it is finding about the quality of that education. Can she update the House, based on her conversations with the Office for Students, about her assessment of the extent to which universities are maintaining the quality of the education they are delivering?
To which Donelan replied:
I am under no illusions about the fact that some students feel they are not getting that quality or that quantity, and that is exactly why we have a process in place. That includes monitoring by the Office for Students… I will speak to the Office for Students about the transparency and approach of its findings.”
Maybe select committee members can get an update on that conversation.
2. Complaints about quality
Another issue they might raise could surround complaints. Since the start of the pandemic, Donelan has told anyone that will listen that students not satisfied with the quality of provision during the pandemic can raise that as a complaint with their provider and then the OIA. For example on October 6th she said:
If they feel their quality of education is not there… they can go through the process of, first, complaining to their university and, if that is not successful, they can then go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.”
Then on November 16th she said:
We have heard accounts of students who feel that the quality of their education has declined. My message to them is that there is a system in place that can help. First, a student should pursue the official complaints procedure at their university. If they remain unsatisfied, they should go to the OIA. That can lead to some form of tuition fee refund.”
On February 3rd she said:
We have said that we expect the quantity, quality and accessibility of provision to be there. If a student feels that it is not, there is a process whereby they can make a formal complaint to their university, and if the issue is still not resolved, they can take it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which can potentially lead to a full or partial refund.
And on the 15th April she said:
We have said that we expect the quantity and quality of provision to be maintained, and for that to be accessible for all. If students have concerns, they should take it to their university and, if they remain unsatisfied, go to the OIA, which can lead and has led to fee refunds.
But the actual adjudicator disagrees:
Assessments about the quality of what has been delivered are likely to involve academic judgement, which we can’t look at. So we wouldn’t be able to consider a complaint that… an online teaching session wasn’t as good as it would have been face to face, or that a postgraduate student did not get supervision of satisfactory quality.”
Maybe select committee members can get some clarity on the issue.
3. Student hardship
Then there’s student hardship. MPs have been repeatedly assured that it is being actively monitored by government. Last July she told the committee:
We worked with the OfS to remove the restrictions around that so they could unlock £23 million per month for April, May, June and July… that has had a fantastic impact in terms of trying to direct that support.”
We weren’t clear then how she’d reached that impact conclusion, but she’s been doubling down on the monitoring claim all year. In November she told MPs:
Student hardship is something that we continue to monitor”
…and on Feb 3rd we got:
We continue to monitor the situation to see how long this will last and the impact the money we have allocated is having on students”
We are actively monitoring the impact of this money, which only goes up to April, so that we can ensure that the best support is there for all students.
We are actively monitoring the impact on students, to ensure that every student who needs the help can get it and that they have that money in their pockets, so that they do not face challenges as the pandemic progresses.”
Maybe select committee members can get hold of some of the results of this “monitoring” so we can see whether the amounts allocated have been sufficient.
4. Righting the wrongs
An issue raised by students all year has been the basis on which they might make complaints – what their rights actually are.
In September, DfE told the Petitions Committee:
“The Department for Education has set up a working group with the OIA, CMA, OfS, Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to consider whether the range of existing guidance can be brought together to help students and providers understand this complex area. The group will also consider whether additional guidance for students and providers is needed, and how the understanding of providers’ consumer law obligations can be further supported.
And then in November, Donelan told MPs:
As the Petitions Committee recommended, we have established a working group that includes the NUS, the OFS, Universities UK, the OIA and the CMA. The OfS is working on a comms campaign, and a new page is now on its website that pulls together existing guidance on consumer issues…. I am also working on additional ways to further promote the rights of students and the processes they should follow, including working with Martin Lewis and his Money Saving Expert team.”
We’ve been unable to find this mythical webpage (surely it doesn’t mean this) and if anyone’s seen sight or sound of a comms campaign or an intervention from Martin Lewis, do let us know.
5. Duties of care
And then there’s student wellbeing. Donelan has spent the year telling us that student minds website Student Space exists without at any stage giving detail on usage or effectiveness, and has also been “reminding” universities of their duty of care. Last April she told students:
They have a duty of care to you, which they recognise and will carry out.”
Back in October Donelan said:
I want to emphasise just how important it is that universities take seriously their duty of care – supporting students’ physical needs, but also their mental health and wellbeing”
And in February she said:
Universities do have a duty of care and it is important that they’re communicating and looking after the wellbeing and support the students during this very challenging time.
As well as:
Universities do have a duty of care, and it is important that they are communicating with and looking after the wellbeing of students during this challenging time.
The problem is that nobody seems to be able to define what universities’ “duty of care” actually means, which means it would be pretty hard for a student to raise that duty not being delivered in practice.
OfS isn’t really set up to look at these duty of care issues, as the select committee discovered when it asked Donelan about sexual misconduct on campus:
We have to remember in the context of everything we have discussed today that, in law, universities are autonomous institutions. That means they have freedom over things like what you have just referenced, like any business would in terms of their own internal policy. It is not something we can intervene in. Of course, we can urge best practice and we can work with sector bodies to reiterate that and to identify issues we think are borne out by those concerns.
At the end of that exchange, committee chair Robert Halfon delivered quite the quip:
I would say that, although universities are autonomous, when the government really wants to do something across universities, they usually can make it happen, especially with someone of your capabilities, Michelle.”
Yes Robert. It would be quite extraordinary if we were about to amend the Higher Education and Research Act to change the emphasis of an already-in-existence freedom of speech duty, while doing nothing to amend HERA around OfS’ role or powers over providers’ duty of care to students.