QAA has a hammer for the square peg in the round hole

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) has issued a short note on the ongoing implications of the pandemic for placements and practice-based courses.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It comes alongside the sound and fury of the universities minister’s twitter thread, and OfS’ advice on how to cover institutional backsides over lost teaching (masquerading as a crackdown on lost learning).

For months now concern has been growing about the build up of practical components of courses – often repeatedly pushed into a post-restrictions future. Now that we’re running out of road in this academic year, that presents a problem. Do you extend said year (with all the practical implications and costs that that brings both for universities and students), or do you… well, what do you do?

The problem is particularly acute when it comes to Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs). Some of their requirements may be merely manifestations of inflexibility, but other red lines may quite reasonably be about evidence of practical experience before they allow their logo to be affixed to a mortarboard.

Once you accept that we need student nurses who’ve had considerable experience on an actual ward, the question is where you draw the line when you work backwards to a student on an English lit degree whose only promise of practical experience was the chance to join student clubs and societies.

A long promised meeting of the PSRBs was held last week with QAA, and Michelle “Business as usual” Donelan certainly made her views clear:

So the QAA note that has emerged from that meeting has ideas on what might be done. For example, when it comes to practice and lab-based assessment, providers (alongside their PSRBs) are asked to consider:

In terms of course intended learning outcomes, reviewing whether students really need to demonstrate (or demonstrate further) the specified skills to achieve an award in a particular subject and/or whether they need to demonstrate them in the way prescribed.

It does rather beg the question – if the activity was never required in pursuit of the learning outcomes, why was it arranged in the first place?

Alternatively, you could:

Offer the students an alternative qualification that acknowledges the alternative theoretical emphasis of the course rather than a practical one. This might require emergency modifications and/or course design and development activity if an appropriate alternative does not exist already, as well as requiring close communication with, and consent of, the participating students.

As far as I can make out, “consent” here would need to be individual. I do worry a lot about how the options might be presented and whether providers would be honest with students about their entitlement to partial refunds as a result of making the above choice.

You could always:

Support deferrals/interruptions of studies if that is a student’s preference

…but if taken up in significant numbers, that would involve prohibitive costs for both students and universities, most of which won’t be covered – and so universities are going to want to nudge students in the direction of other options.

Then again you could:

Offer students opportunities to return in the future, including post-graduation, to gain additional experience using specialist equipment or facilities that will enable consolidation and support them in specialist professions.”

But hold on. If the practical experience was part of what was offered to the student, why would it be OK for them to return later? Why are we artificially separating theory and practice in this way – with the latter potentially framed as optional?

If you are on a course that is described as follows:

In addition to deepening your understanding of academic debates, our course will help equip you with the practical tools and skills needed to become a leader in key areas of the cultural arena, including theatres, music venues, galleries, museums and festivals.

…are we really saying that all of a sudden it was the “deepening of your understanding of academic debates” but that was the killer, and the “practical tools and skills” that was the filler? Even if it gets through the appropriate committee, employers may have a different view.

Maybe in the case of PSRB requirements you could:

Separate the elements that relate primarily to PSRB recognition from those that are necessary for the integrity of the academic award so that the latter is prioritised for graduation and the opportunity to achieve PSRB recognition is enabled subsequently.

…but the “badge” on courses like this is regarded by students as pretty essential in a large number of careers, and definitely part of the “material information” they were given.

Of course to be compliant with the OfS guidance last summer on warning students about what would happen in the event of lockdowns, providers would have already worked out what to do here and warned students.

Put another way – in theory, if you’re working at a provider considering any of these options (all of which form a part of the material information) you’re already in breach of OfS’ requirements, and should be offering refunds or extra opportunities as a result.

It will be very important for providers to be honest with students about their rights here. The danger is that without any more road to drive on, the “swerve” choices are presented to exhausted students in a painfully unfair way.

You could always go for QAA’s final option:

Extend the academic year.

But on the scale we’re looking at, that would need government intervention and funing. Over to you, DfE.

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