One of the witnesses being questioned by the committee was funding council boss David Blaney, who had some interesting things to say about the pandemic and value for money. For example – one comment related to what HEFCW thinks students are paying for:
What [students] are paying for is the learning opportunities and the assessment, and I think the universities have worked exceptionally hard to make sure that they are as high a quality as is possible given the kind of legal constraints that apply during Covid… the core tuition fee pays for the learning opportunity.”
That will sound fine to many in the sector – but it may not actually be true. The Competition and Markets Authority makes clear that it’s not just the opportunity to learn that’s “material”, but the method(s) of assessment for the course, the location of study (including the likely or possible location of any work placements to be undertaken), learning support facilities [and services], timetables, and non-course-related information that students consider important and is likely to impact on their decision-making [like everything they are wheeled around on an open day].
Students do have rights in relation to delivery of what’s promised, and should have given explicit individual consent to changes to any of the above.
And providers can’t rely on so-called “force majeure” clauses to relieve themselves of those duties, although Blaney said:
I think universities have worked exceptionally hard to make sure the [opportunities] are as high a quality as possible given the legal constraints.
Blaney did say that students were “clearly not getting” the “same overall experience” they would have expected in person – but he focussed on extracurricular aspects:
Engagement in societies, sport and so on are extra to the fees as well – they pay extra for those.”
The overall tone was that students have received everything they should have expected given the circumstances, and that everything they have “paid for” has been delivered in an “equivalent” way.
As well as raising real questions about the regulator’s interpretation of the legal position, there’s also big questions that surround quality, complaints and value for money. Universities Wales’ Amanda Wilkinson wanted to emphasize that universities have “robust complaints procedures” if students are not satisfied with their courses – but omitted to mention to the committee that students are barred from making complaints about university judgements on course “quality”, which is really what the committee was getting at.
Blaney asserted that:
I think in terms of the specific quality of the tuition and the learning opportunities that they’re getting, I think they probably are getting good value for money.”
The question is, in part, how he knows. When we asked HEFCW about this last week it said that it had reported to the Welsh Government on working with institutions to ensure students are “continuing to receive provision that meets expectations with regard to quality standards, both in terms of study and wider support” which covered guidance, engagement with institutions, institutional and student surveys, and its Quality Assessment and Student Opportunity and Achievement committees.
No detail on any of that – and you have to wonder about the student surveys being quoted. In the Wales cut of our polling in October for example, only 53 per cent of students in Wales declared being “satisfied” with the academic experience, and over one in four were actively dissatisfied. Maybe it all got better once the clocks went back – but nevertheless, Blaney argued that:
It looks like the view of students is that the learning experience has been pretty good actually, it’s held up pretty well. I think in terms of the specific quality of the tuition and the learning opportunities that they’re getting, I think they probably are getting good value for money.”
When a committee member challenged the assertions on value and quality, Blaney of course had to accept that QAA doesn’t know what goes on in the classroom and relies on peer review (which almost certainly hasn’t been happening either within or across institutions this year), but did say that:
We’ve been engaging with NUS Wales and we’ve increased our engagement with students’ unions… if provision is not being delivered adequately we want to know about it, not because we want to be a regulator and become interventionist… so far it’s been very positive, far more positive than I might have feared.”
Students’ unions in Wales may be surprised to learn that that’s the message they’ve apparently been communicating.