Is there any actual policy behind the politics of in-person teaching?

Michelle Donelan’s rhetoric on in-person teaching has stepped up a gear in recent days.

But given it’s an election week, after which we might assume that a reshuffle may be coming, we do need to try to work out if it’s all empty showboating for the press, or something more substantial.

At the weekend, Donelan gave an interview to the Mail on Sunday – and as well as trying to sell the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (it is just me or is that a terrible name) and threatening NUS with “imminent” cancellation, she “threw down the gauntlet” to the “stubborn minority” of vice chancellors and lecturers who are still working remotely, signalling her intention to to “put boots on the ground” by sending “teams of inspectors” to investigate “staff attendance rates on campuses across Britain”.

Let’s ignore that either Michelle, or more likely the Mail, have forgotten that higher education and its regulation is a devolved matter. Is a group of clipboard warriors really about to appear to see who’s doing in-person teaching? IN MAY?

Now today in the Telegraph the ante is upped even further. In an op-ed Donelan says that a “stubborn minority of universities” have put themselves on an “entirely different track” to the rest of us when it comes to returning to normal – but to illustrate Donelan has to resort to a pivot from face to face teaching to “events”:

One example is of Imperial College London – which served as a hub of COVID science – it recently refused to allow parents to attend their children’s graduation ceremonies last month, despite the fact that COVID restrictions had been fully lifted by then.

She goes on to say that she’s written to universities to make clear that they need to be honest about how courses will be taught – something the Competition and Markets Authority did in 2015. She also says that she will “not hesitate to ask the CMA” to investigate any universities that are failing in their duty to be clear – which does rather beg the question why she’s not done so so far, and if so why they’ve done nothing about it, like they’ve been doing since the start of the pandemic.

Next she repeats that she’s told the Office for Students to put “boots on the ground” and investigate universities where there are concerns over the face to face provision being given:

Vice chancellors should be in no doubt that if investigated, their universities could face severe consequences, including fines… It is time for the stubborn minority to look at the rest of the country, look at themselves, and do the right thing. If they don’t, they will soon have much bigger problems to deal with.”

But wouldn’t this represent cracking down on those universities utilising technology to enhance student learning such as delivering a lecture face to face and recording it for students to rewatch for revision?

This is not about cracking down on those universities utilising technology to enhance student learning such as delivering a lecture face to face and recording it for students to rewatch for revision.

Oh. So what is it then?

I do, however, draw the line at online learning being used for the university’s convenience against the interests of their students. Saving money, bonkers zero-Covid strategies or sheer convenience are not valid reasons to cut face to face teaching.

You’ll note that there’s no mention of her own department’s failures over A Levels that caused several courses, mainly in the Russell Group, to be so oversubscribed that she had to threaten universities into taking more students than they wanted to – with the result that delivering “full” in-person teaching became all but impossible.

The “grain of truth” hook for the story here is that strategic guidance letter from ministers to OfS sent back at the end of March. That contained this policy paragraph:

We have made clear our view that students must be able to expect high-quality teaching, including face-to-face education. The government has removed all restrictions on in person teaching, meaning providers are able to offer the full face-to-face teaching experience that they were offering before the pandemic. Virtual learning is a fantastic innovation, one that can be used to complement and enhance a student’s learning experience, not detract from it, but it should not be used as a cost cutting exercise. The OfS should ensure that students receive the educational experience that their provider has promised.

And this bit of direction:

The OfS also receives information from students and others that may point to concerns about quality. Our expectation is that the OfS should deploy this regulatory intelligence to implement a visible and effective inspections regime against the other B (Quality) conditions of registration, that will involve on-site inspection of 10-15 providers next year, that will root out pockets of poor provision and will result in regulatory action where appropriate. Through this activity, we would expect the OfS to focus on the following priorities: that online learning should be used to complement and enhance a student’s learning experience, not to detract from it; the provision of sufficient contact hours, particularly where this has been flagged by intelligence from students; and the importance of maintaining rigour in assessment, including appropriate technical proficiency in English necessary to secure a good outcome for all or some students.

Of course OfS hasn’t yet publicly accepted the inspection recommendation, and it would be astounding if it had done so already and started to roll out the clipboards without saying anything. And just as we were astounded this time last year when Donelan was heradling her lifting of restrictions to cause a return to campus IN MAY (for what?), now she seems to be pulling the same trick by suggesting that OfS will be shortly working out who’s delivering in-person IN MAY.

Taken together, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that it all therefore feels rather like pure politics rather than actual policy. CMA appears to continue to be deliberately disinterested, there’s no news on OfS souping up its work on universities making promises and then keeping them, and it’s not as if we’re even getting the sort of policy balloons that might have been sent up by the likes of Jo Johsnon over a “teaching intensity” metric.

The ongoing problem for ministers at this end of a government’s life is the “unsolved problem” issue. Elsewhere in the Independent, another line from the March DfE/OfS strategic guidance “reveals” that both Nadhim Zahawi and Donelan have told the higher education regulator it should become a sanctionable offence to not follow recommendations on tackling sexual violence.

The political problem is that it’s now seven years since Sajid Javid (as Business Secretary) promised that universities would have a plan to stamp out violence against women and provide a safe environment for all their students. Are we now supposed to be impressed?

Surely voters at some stage tire of… promises repeatedly being made that don’t seem to be kept over in-person teaching?

Given that cabinet colleagues were bending David Willetts’ ear about in-person contact hours as far back as when he was the shadow minister in 2009, aren’t we reaching the end of voters’ patience with an issue that ministers validate as legitimate but seemingly can’t quantify, influence or control?

5 responses to “Is there any actual policy behind the politics of in-person teaching?

  1. There is no policy behind it at all. Michelle Donelan’s pronouncements allegedly against online learning are a complete load of nonsense. The reality is that the OfS will simply sign off every single blended learning model that the University’s present to them. If for example a course has switched from 6 hours lectures face-to-face and 6 hours seminars face-to-face to a new model of all 6 hours lectures online, then as long as the University ticks a few boxes saying that is it progressive and innovative and gives a bit of anecdotal evidence of some students saying that they find it convenient, then the OfS will rubber stamp it as all fine and dandy. I think that there is danger now that online teaching will degrade the whole University system into a complete and utter sham where students are just thrown an internet access key code at the start of their 3 year courses and told to get on with it and given a bit of paper at the end to say they’ve passed. Why is society letting this happen.

    1. First the OfS would need to make some kid of commitment to actually considering “blended learning models” though. At the minute it won’t be signing anything off.

      I realise I’m very much at a single institution, but this is still so far from my experience it seems mad. We moved things online due to Covid, and kept them there in instances where we had staff or student illness, visa restrictions preventing student travel, and forced over-recruitment mandated by the government. As we move away from those things, we’ve moved back (though the over-recruitment will require managing for several years), with the exception of a handful of deliberately designed blended courses. We did keep monitoring Covid rates in the institution and community, and used that to determine our approach to event management on a case by case basis, but even that has now been loosened. And we are an institution which has received a periodic kicking for not lifting all restrictions immediately. It definitely feels like politics.

      1. But thats the whole issue summed up. Nobody actually knows what is going on in the 146 UK Universities. There is no obligation to publish the data about online teaching. Unless you get to see every students timetable for every course , then you just can’t get a handle on what is really going on. And some Uni’s will be using online teaching sparingly and sensibly, yet others will have made a wholesale permanent switch. I have done my best to find out by doing regular sweeps of all 146 websites, and at the last count in Feb 22 , 111 of these were declaring that they had some form of blended learning. But exactly how much is just impossible to find out. And any prospective student is more or less taking a lucky dip at the moment, and won’t find out until they get their timetable in September, after they have plonked down their bags in the hall of residence.

  2. The ONS haven’t helped very much by only asking whether students are studying remotely or face to face, and not asking whether this is due to their own preference or circumstances, or whether remote is all they’ve been offered. Given that the satisfaction of those studying remotely is not a great deal lower than those who are not, that either suggests an element of choice, or truly excellent remote provision.

    Is there a reputable source which has researched the ‘choice’ dimension?

  3. Please can we reclaim the term ‘blended learning’. Blended learning is not about whether something is face to face or online, it is the use of a mix of pedagogical methods to enable students to gain confidence, knowledge and mastery of their subject.

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