What went on in the Higher Education Taskforce in August and September?

Back on 18 August right in the middle of the examnishambles, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan announced the formation of a Higher Education Taskforce.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

On the day Andrew Keenan (a freelance consultant and strategist for students’ unions) submitted a freedom of information request into the Department for Education (DfE) asking for the terms of reference and membership of the group, and also asked to see any correspondence on the National Union of Students’ potential membership of the group.

The thread is up on What do they know, and contains an amusing moment in mid-September when Keenan is told that there aren’t any terms of reference. He goes on to request both minutes of the taskforce and detail on discussions between NUS and the minister, and after some delays and exchanges on the applicability of the “formulation or development of government policy” excuse for not releasing stuff and the application of a “public interest test” on releasing information, a batch of stuff has now been published.

TL;DR – there are no jaw dropping smoking gun moments here, but the material is nevertheless fascinating if you’re into understanding the interrelationships between behind the scenes discussions and what gets issued and done publicly.

We have “readouts” for eleven meetings if the taskforce spanning the fallout from the examinishambles and then the morphing of the taskforce into a group looking more widely at the pandemic. UCAS, the University Alliance, the Russell Group, Guild HE, the Student Loans Company, the Office For Students, the Association Of Colleges, Million Plus, Universities UK, and Independent HE are all on the group – and of course the National Union of Students and the University and College Union are not.

The first meeting was on the 18th August, at which “Minister Donelan” seeks an agreement from sector representatives to commit to a “consistent approach” which would provide students with “clarity and reassurance that their interests are at the forefront of our work”. Meanwhile it was reported that sector bodies representing universities about to tell students with new grades that they wouldn’t be getting places despite having met their offers were lobbying to avoid legal challenges (though CMA) or regulatory penalty (through OfS).

Universities were also worried about capacity – physical capacity (including accommodation and teaching space), as well as stuff like mental health services and teaching and learning support. Much of what then happens in the meetings immediately afterwards we know – slowly but surely the messaging goes out, the reassurances on funding are given and most students are taken in. We do learn that on August 20th mission groups were reporting that 20-30% of international students were declining offers – lower than anticipated but still significant.

By August 21st the main aspects of the exams issues look to have been addressed, and the group starts to turn its attention to the wider issues involved in campus reopening and the start of the academic year. This was the day that Indie SAGE expressed concerns, and the group noted that a forthcoming official SAGE report would also be picked up by the media. There was a “concern that the public will not see the difference between independent and official SAGE report” and sector bodies asked for “a coordinated effort/help from government”, partly because UCU were “planning to use this … as much as possible to argue against blended learning and for staff not to return in September”.

Three days later we hear of creative solutions being deployed by universities with oversubscribed courses to encourage deferrals:

Durham have offered financial incentive for those who opt to defer. Others offering students a reduced fee to defer. One of the Oxbridge offering online courses/additional support to keep students warm. Some providers looking to do January start dates rather than full year deferral. Around 10% of health and technical courses have January and April starts normally.

By September 2nd things are pretty stable on the full courses front, and the focus shifts to Covid comms. At that point the message to students was to be following Wales’ lead with what was bizarrely branded as a “use it or lose it” message to encourage students to go back to campus! The Russell Group asks that guidance not be too prescriptive on class size but focuses instead on environments like ventilation and social distance, maybe because their class sizes are often high.

By 11th September, the country is in the grip of a rapid surge in cases amongst the young, and the grand plan at this stage is to ensure that university students comply with guidance on social distancing. Taskforce members asked DfE and DHSC to consider the triggers between the famous tiers of restriction, so that providers would know when to change face to face teaching time. The University of Nottingham had found that students were less likely to share who they have been in contact with if their infection involved illegal behaviour such as throwing parties.

And on 16th September, the group noted that the risk that students from non-Russell Group institutions might feel less cared about if their universities could not afford to carry out their own testing, which the group resolved to mitigate by “being clear with students that testing on site is a bonus”. After all, nothing reassures students more about the highly stratified nature of UK HE than being told that the advantages afforded to attendees of Russell Group universities are merely a “bonus”.

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