Universities told not to swamp courses with students

Cry wolf. Oooh oooh. Try not to worry now.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The burgeoning demand for higher education is a vote of confidence from students in the potentially life-changing benefits that – at their best – universities and colleges can provide. [But] universities and colleges must not abuse this trust by sacrificing quality for inflated intakes.”

Not my words conference, but the words of Office for Students CEO Nicola Dandridge across the media this morning. Every so often when OfS doesn’t really have anything new to say, it fires out out a blog to justify a press release that covers the issuing of that blog – and you’re never really sure whether the idea is to convince the press that something is happening or to fire warning shots above the heads of university managers. Or both.

Today’s, bizarrely called “The year ahead: What students can expect from the OfS” despite not covering what students can expect from the OfS in the year ahead, is focussed on admissions practices, and there are three themes – access and participation, offer making and keeping promises.

It’s actually the last of those three that catches the eye of most of the media, who all take the press release bait and lead on the number of students recruited onto courses. i News frames that as “drop[ing] teaching standards by taking on too many students”, BBC News uses the “swamp” word in the release (as in “told not to swamp courses with students”), and the Telegraph goes with “warned not to inflate their intakes amid rise in top grades”.

To be fair to OfS, the issue is a real one. It’s the empty threat and the lack of powers that are troubling. The press release says that OfS has powers to intervene where there are issues about the teaching and support universities provide to students which may include “a course not being delivered in the way students had expected”, for example “unexpected changes to what is taught, or concerns about the quality of teaching, the availability of resources, or the fairness of assessment” or things like “academic support not being available in the way students had expected”, for example “a university’s personal tutoring system not working effectively and in the way set out in the course handbook, or significant and unexpected reductions in contact hours or course content.”

That sounds fine in principle. Students and academics alike will be pleased that OfS is concerned about providers’ overall capacity to deliver courses advertised. We can all agree that “universities and colleges should ensure they have the capacity and resources to support all the students they recruit”. But who decides that enough is enough?

And let’s think for a minute. Has there been a time when there’s been widespread concern about courses not being delivered in the way students had expected because of, for example, unexpected changes to what is taught? Or concerns about the quality of teaching, the availability of resources, or the fairness of assessment?

Has there been a recent period when students were worried about things like academic support not being available in the way students had expected? Or worries that universities’ personal tutoring systems are creaking under overwork? Or significant and unexpected reductions in contact hours or course content?

OfS may well believe that it has powers to intervene in those circumstances, but given the way this is the way students have said they feel about this academic year in almost every survey published since September, when you couple that with the complete silence on OfS’ so-called interventions during the period, students would be forgiven for assuming that this is regulatory wolf-crying.

The killer questions are whether OfS would a) notice the student that slid into my DMs about seminars of 60 before Christmas without a notification or complaint, b) would have the powers to or be actually prepared to take action if it did, c) whether it would tell us that it had and therefore d) whether universities really are dissuaded from doing so. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, let me go.

What would make more sense would be some sensible (number) controls on expansion at a relatively granular level. Students, applicants, regulators, academics and governors could all do with knowing what “full” looks like – rather than what we know happens now, which is some courses at some providers expanding too fast and placing intolerable pressure on what’s shared – which in and of itself cruises that kind of turmoil in other providers, which in and of itself…

Of course part of the reason that happens is about recruitment practice, and what really seems to be going on here is OfS passively aggressively critiquing the Russell Group’s problems with access last September, and its declaration in January that it’s intending to expand rapidly again out of the goodness of its examnishambles heart:

Last summer we saw a significant increase in the number of students taking up a place at higher-tariff universities, such as those in the Russell Group. This included those from the most underrepresented areas and groups and reflects our members’ determination to ensure applicants were not unfairly affected by the challenging circumstances around those assessments. Our universities will take forward a similar approach this year.

Couldn’t OfS just get a meeting in the with the Russell Group and spare us all the noise?

Anyway if taking on too many students is the rock, there’s a hard place too for those providers worried about what the RG will do to recruitment around the rest of the sector. Noting that last year OfS banned “conditional unconditional” offers, the Dandridge blog says it has seen potential evidence that some universities may not be complying… by giving examples that aren’t actually about conditional unconditional offer making at all:

For example, cases have been drawn to our attention where large numbers of unconditional offers are being made or where offers are based solely on predicted grades – rather than the grades students go on to achieve. We will be investigating these instances further and have powers to impose fines where our rules have been breached.

We think this is probably a bit of poor drafting/editing – Dandridge appears to be suggesting that firing out lots of unconditionals would have a “material negative effect on the stability and/or integrity of the English higher education sector” – ie closer to “conduct prohibited” than “conduct permitted” in its classic-of-the-genre Kafka-esque “stability and integrity” Condition Z3.

To be honest, given nobody knows how many students will have each of the available A level grades, and anyway they’re going to be based on teacher assessment, I can make a very good argument for “offers based solely on predicted grades” and doubtless some providers’ lawyers can too.

As well as the usual messages on access, we also get the usual consumer law stuff about “absolute clarity”. It’s important to be “open with students” about what they should expect, universities must be “upfront” about how much time will they have “in face-to-face lectures or tutorials”, they should detail “what practical learning experiences are involved” and say “what kind of self-guided study is expected” because it is important that students can “make informed decisions and have a clear view about what they are signing up for”.

It’s basically what OfS said last June, September, October, November, and January. It’s amazing that the press keeps falling for it.

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