Universities have no excuse for not teaching face-to-face, says Nadhim Zahawi

If you were pleased that your 2022 timeline had thus far been free of “face to face teaching” discourse, Sunday morning brought bad news.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi’s tour around the studios yesterday not only generated an “absolute commitment” that exams in schools and colleges would be going ahead both this January and for the summer, but also some finger wagging on in-person teaching.

He told the Times that since “face-to-face learning” was being delivered “across the education system”, he could see no reason why it wouldn’t be happening in HE:

They are doing it in primary and secondary schools and in colleges. I expect universities to do the same thing, otherwise explain why not. There are no excuses, we are all in this together.”

The Sunday papers also saw some pitch-rolling for the removal of free lateral flow tests in England, so while of course Zahawi denied any plans for that, he was keen to stress the background message of “learning to live with” Covid. Omicron was framed as a “big bump in the road”, and for universities:

…We have to get back a world where students are getting value for money and face-to-face education.”

And what if they are not getting that value for money and face-to-face education?

[Universities] need to deliver it and if students feel they are not getting value for money they should take that up with the Office for Students.”

The Times said that it had found that more than 100 institutions – including 23 of the 24 in the Russell Group – are planning to offer blended learning again this term:

I want to repeat that my expectation of universities is that they deliver face-to-face education”

Naturally, the Russell Group hit back:

At all Russell Group universities students can expect seminars, small group classes and lab work to be taught in-person. An element of digital learning, which was an important feature of university courses pre-pandemic, will continue. This is used primarily to enhance teaching and learning, such as with flipped lectures where students do background work before in-person sessions.”

For me, it’s important that we don’t overthink comments like this. He probably didn’t have the Open University specifically or distance learning courses generally in mind when he issued the comments. I’m prepared to accept that he was probably thinking about courses where students are legally “in attendance”.

He was probably also not referring to the uploading of slides and recordings onto Blackboard or other digital “enhancements”. He has lectures and seminars in mind, and for me it’s not especially helpful to suggest that he wants to ban all digital enhancement ever.

I’m also not as convinced as others that this tells us that Nadhim Zahawi believes that online teaching and learning is somehow inferior or bad “value”. The best curry in the world is crap if you wanted a chicken chow mein, and separate to the legal or health issues, I think it’s OK for students to prefer, want, demand and be delivered their teaching in a particular mode.

Yes, you can make decent arguments about mitigations that slow the spread – moving teaching online, ventilation and air quality in teaching spaces, and masking policies – and how heavily you weight the benefits on the see-saw with their downsides.

Yes, you can make great arguments about the way in which some mitigations have been a godsend for some students – although I do get worried when people end up suggesting that the only way we’ll ever make campuses accessible is by donning a VR headset.

You can bemoan the lack of subtlety and complexity in the arguments over the phrases, or the implication that universities and their staff have been issuing “excuses” rather than making decent and carefully weighed up decisions, or the idea that

But for me the most vexing thing is the proposed route to resolution:

[Universities] need to deliver it and if students feel they are not getting value for money they should take that up with the Office for Students.”

The Office for Students isn’t the complaints body for English higher education, it’s the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

Maybe he means that students should use the OfS “notifications” process. But as OfS makes clear, it doesn’t do individual complaints:

We will not be able to update you on the progress or outcome of the issue that you have raised. Confirming or denying that we are investigating a concern could interfere with our ability to investigate effectively, for example by tipping off a university or college about our interest.

And as OfS’ CEO Nicola Dandridge said back in September:

What we will be looking for is quality provision whether or not it’s face-to-face or online.”

Maybe I’m breaking my own overthinking-Zahawi rule here – but what’s striking is not so much that ministers continue to believe that “something is wrong with universities”, but that as they clutch that belief, they have nothing to offer students, parents or reporters on fixing the problem beyond pointing at their own wrist’s length regulator.

About the only sensible thing I’ve read on all this comes from Olivia Anderson from Ripon on the website of Greatest Hits Radio (the Good Times Sound Like This) which I’ll reproduce here in full:

I didn’t meet anybody and I didn’t really make any friends and trying to make friends with people on Snapchat group chats is not the same but this year we’re allowed to be on campus the learning aspect and the social aspect are so much better and it’s a really big change.

The first year of my uni was completely online. The content was so hard to learn because we didn’t have the practical aspect to also learn from. You don’t really focus as much so I don’t feel like I learnt as well as a normal year would have been.

Especially for practical courses, you really have to do your practicals to be able to do a good assignment. Last year when everything was online and we couldn’t do certain practical and trying to write a lab report on a practical you haven’t done was really difficult and I probably didn’t do as well in it as I could have.

If that happened this year in my second year when the grades that we get really start to count towards the final grade then it is really going to impact me a lot because you need the first hand teaching experience to be able to produce the best piece of work.”

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