Online learning should not be used as a cost saving measure

Michelle Donelan has been giving her view on strikes, online learning and drop-out rates.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Last time Donelan had a run at communicating with students directly back in January, her six tweet thread was widely derided. So this time she’s taken to student news site The Tab to give her views on where we are, and “online learning” is clearly still an issue in her inbox from backbenchers:

During the uncertainty of Covid-19 and before the student vaccine rollout (over 90 per cent of students are now vaccinated), face-to-face learning was rightly put on hold. However this temporary change in learning must not be used by universities as an opportunity for cost saving or for convenience.

What Donelan doesn’t say is that at least some teaching is being delivered online because universities have attempted to create safer environments than her guidance guarantees. Nor does she say that some teaching is being delivered online because her government’s examnishambles poured more students into some courses in some universities than were predictable or than space constraints allowed – but universities can’t, of course, admit that out loud – so Donelan points at VCs, VCs point at Donelan, and students sit in their box rooms watching lectures on their own.

It’s an interesting bit of text for me, because in many ways it’s a return of a familiar frame:

Many people reading this may already know me as the Minister for Higher and Further Education, but this is a slightly misleading title given the way I view my role.

While I do work very closely with universities and colleges themselves, the vast majority of my time is actually spent supporting, defending and assisting students and prospective students. Basically, ensuring that students get a fair deal.

What would that fair deal look like? First, the line on strikes is as anti-trade union as you might expect:

Let’s not forget that strike action last time did not resolve the issue – but it did disrupt students’ education. I urge the University and Colleges Union to get round the negotiating table and put students first, because they deserve a fair deal.

Next, there’s a restatement of the government’s settled (yet vague) online learning position, but this time with another push towards making complaints if students aren’t happy:

Face-to-face learning is a vital element of almost every course, and while virtual learning is a fantastic innovation, it should only ever be used to complement and enhance your learning experience, not detract from it. I have written to every university in the country to set out my expectation that universities listen to their students.

And there’s another push on the graduate jobs stuff from the access and participation announcement last week:

Universities continue to focus too much on the “getting in”aspect and not enough on the “getting on” aspect of these plans. Real social mobility is not purely about getting students to enrol on courses – it is about ensuring they complete those courses and get into good graduate jobs.”

As such, it’s a selection of lines we’ve seen before but boiled down for a student audience – although there is a new strain that may end up more transmissible than the others:

Transparency from your university is not something I see as a woolly ideal: for me every student has a right to receive accurate information about their course and their prospects from their university before they make decisions that will help determine their future.

This honesty thing manifests in two ways. First, a lack of clarity over outcomes:

I don’t think it is unreasonable for students to expect that their course delivers on the promises made to them, and leads to a good graduate job. Some universities continue to offer courses with a drop-out rate of over 40 per cent, which is a fact that prospective students looking at that course should know about in advance. Universities should actively make applicants aware of these outcomes in their prospectuses – it shouldn’t be for students to have to hunt through the small-print to find this sort of basic information.

And then a lack of clarity over teaching delivery format:

Universities must be totally transparent with students about the return to face-to-face learning and there are options available to students if they feel that they have not received what they were promised – over half a million pounds has already been refunded by providers as a result of complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education on a wide variety of issues, and greater clarity from universities will help even more students get reimbursements where appropriate.”

What‘s going on here then?

Those with long memories might remember that in the final years of the Labour government in the 2000s, a “minister for students” was appointed (first in the form of Lord Triesman, and then in the form of Baroness Morgan) with specific responsibility to “speak up” for higher education students and convene a National Student Forum (a kind of handpicked, Stepford-style NUS) which was to advise ministers on student issues.

There are few new ideas in politics, of course, so when ambitious young universities minister Sam Gyimah was appointed in January 2018, the framing appeared again as he kicked off a listening tour of campus visits:

So many young people feel disengaged from politics and, although some students and I might not always agree, I want them to have a voice and be heard in the corridors of power. I’d like to be thought of as minister for students as much as minister for universities.

Anyone familiar with Julian Le Grand’s work on public policy will understand the framing here. In the postwar period, public servants like vice chancellors or lecturers were framed as public‐spirited altruists (“knights”), whereas service users like students were seen as passive (or “pawns”) – and ministers took responsibility for (and the credit for) the round table.

But in the mid‐1980s, everything changed – choice and markets and direct “citizen accountability” in public services started to mean that that public servants needed to be framed as essentially self‐interested (“knaves”) and service users had to be regarded as consumers (“queens”) – with ministers becoming champions of the interests of those queens, often in opposition to the self-interest of the knaves.

I’m not nearly as instinctively opposed to the framing than your average Wonkhe reader – for me it’s clear that it is perfectly possible for those running or operating public services to prioritise interests other than those of their users, and I can see how types of accountability might improve that.

What is harder to stomach is the way in which the framing can be used to deflect ministers’ culpability in what causes the failures – because it’s only an honest way to operate if the incentives were right and the funding was there. And perhaps even more important than that, it’s only a framing that works if you’re actually into giving citizens, service users (or in this case students) more power.

Let me give you an example. In the Tab piece, Donelan invokes a particular case involving what appears to be a text book bit of mis-selling:

Just recently, my colleague, Mark Pawsey MP, found that a course in Early Years, Care and Education in his area was advertising “professional progression”, yet in reality the course lacked the accreditation needed to actually work in the early years sector. I was shocked by this and the impact it had on Mark’s constituent – quite frankly it is not good enough.

Fair enough. That’s the sort of thing you would expect a backbench MP to raise and ask a responsible minister to sort out.

Now if you wanted to systemically address the issues here, you might address out loud the way in which your funding systems or your marketised incentives have led to the behaviour. I can see that argument, and I agree in part – although as I’ve said before, plying 25 lads with booze at the showing of a football match doesn’t absolve them of guilt if they end up hitting people. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour.

But for me what’s more important is the difference between a backbench MP raising a single issue or incident, and your role as a minister with responsibility for the regulation of universities. Riffing off the the Early Years, Care and Education course case, Donelan continues:

As the Minister committed to representing students and fighting for your right to make informed choices, these kinds of practices are totally unacceptable and I would go so far as to argue they plainly mislead students. Students deserve better – they deserve a fair deal.

I have already cracked down on this particular case and several others, but going forward, I will be personally naming and shaming any university which does not offer students the transparency they deserve.

I read this and made a mental note to ask DfE about the “several others” that this one-woman Advertising Standards Authority has been intervening in. The thing is that even if she’s being honest, the “universities minister as caseworker” is not a scalable solution. It’s the same problem as the SU officer taking on a case and winning it, but running out of time to argue for the policy change that would actually prevent it.

There are ways, if it wanted to, that government and its regulator(s) could actually cause consumer protection law to be better communicated to students and better enable students to take advantage of those rights. Those things are not in the piece. They could discuss the review of the enforcement of consumer protection law that BEIS has on, or the new strategy that OfS is consulting on. They don’t.

As such the problem for me is similar to the OfS problem – and most other times that higher education ministers have posited themselves as the minister for students. It’s all caped crusader “I’ll save you” stuff, rather than clarity on rights and support to enforce them. It’s “powerful minister”, instead of “powerful student”.

For example, if a letter had gone to the Office for Students (OfS) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) calling for better work on students understanding their rights or support to enforce them, I’d have more confidence that this was more than mood music. See also this sorry tale last time that ministers promised something similar at the height of the pandemic.

Sadly, in many ways nothing has really moved on this since 2019 when Gavin Williamson took to the Sunday Telegraph to say:

Live up to your promises or pay students back, universities told”

…which in and of itself was only a remix of a promise Jo Johnson had made in 2017:

Although contracts do exist in various forms in some institutions, most of them do not provide enough detail to be useful, or to allow students to know what they can expect from their providers in terms of resource commitments, contact time, assessments, support and other important aspects of their educational experience.”

One day they’ll mean it, but I’m not holding my breath. Until then, the message here is “don’t hate me, hate your VC”, like a divorced parent imploring their kids to blame the other parent for something. I’m not sure it’ll work, but it is what it is.

One response to “Online learning should not be used as a cost saving measure

  1. Fully online lectures for most students are here to stay unless somebody within authority stops this sooner rather than later. This is a ‘pure and simple’ money grab (less costs, more revenue potential) by Universities and our whole Higher education system is going to be irrecoverably damaged. The use of technology is supposed to be empowering and liberating to human society, yet it is being used to confine students to their bedrooms for much of their university experience and this is very sad to witness.

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