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?
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?