What went on in the Higher Education Taskforce in October and November?

For much of the year, the main forum of discussion between the English higher education sector and the Department for Education (DfE) has been a taskforce established originally to deal with the fall out from last summer’s examnishambles.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

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As soon as it was announced Andrew Keenan (a freelance consultant and strategy advisor) 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.

After some to-ing, fro-ing and challenging on the FOI public interest test, he got the first batch of “readouts” from the group back in November – we covered the contents on Wonk Corner at the time. Now after some fresh wrangling and breaching of time limits (the detail of which is up on whatdotheyknow here), we have another batch of partially redacted readouts – this time covering 23rd September to 3rd November 2020.

Late September last year, which is when the story picks back up, was an altogether simpler time. Government, for example, was still “clear [that] exams [are] fairest way to determine grades as demonstrated this summer”. Schools Minister Nick Gibb’s message to the group was unequivocal – “we’re everything possible to ensure exams go ahead”. UUK was keen to reassure DfE that exams being pushed back a couple of weeks would be fine, but wanted to make sure that any announcement covered all four nations given the flows of students. DfE said it would feedback to devolved administrations to ensure “we are as joined up as possible”, to no obvious avail.

On Covid, by late September universities were reporting to the group that they were starting to have issues with students misbehaving, and in some instances when the police were needed they were at full capacity. “How else is the sector expected to break up mass gatherings in these cases”, asked someone at the meeting. “Minister Donelan has written to the policing minister”, they were told.

By September 30th, the main exam crisis had all but subsided, so notes start to focus on the pandemic exclusively. A discussion on “customer protection and information for students” reveals that at the time OIA was sat on 130 complaints which were in some way Covid-related, mostly complaints from the end of last academic year. Both CMA and OfS were worried about accurate provision of information to students – a bit late by then.

On finances, the group heard that some international students had started online but there was no guarantee they would ever arrive or stay enrolled. UUK said members were showing three areas of concern – lack of clarity on the international student picture, additional costs arising from Covid-security and “the refund issue will rise if local restrictions increase or in there is a national lockdown”, which wasn’t a bad prediction.

A fairly fruitless looking discussion on mental health ensued at the taskforce a week later, and a couple of days later a special meeting was convened on Christmas. All of the complexity and contradictions in what emerged as the government response were there on 7 October. What’s surprising is that it took over a month to make the announcement on the “student travel window” – a delay that looks like it was caused by waiting on mass lateral flow testing to be arranged.

There’s an amusing moment on October 14 when the group gets round to discussing the revelation that SAGE had recommended moving teaching online. Both the group and DfE sound as surprised as the rest of us were when it was published, and one of the actions was that DfE would “look into where SAGE got the data for their recommendations”, which sounds less like the science informing the policy, and more like DfE not getting the science until it’s too late to influence the policy and then ignoring it anyway.

The following day much of the record is redacted, although in the discussion on Christmas one section says a proposal that gives “options to students will show a positive outcome, by giving them the power to decide how they would like to handle their education and give back some confidence in the sector”. That’s not exactly how we remember the Christmas announcement going down, so maybe something was on the table then that never came to pass.

By the 3rd November all the chat was about that pre-Christmas national lockdown (”restrictions period”), and DfE was asked if it would be instructing providers to stop in person teaching by the 9th December or would it be merely strongly suggested in the published guidance? Minister Donelan had been clear that she wanted to guarantee that students could be home by Christmas and would “not be afraid to force providers to close” if they were planning on keeping students on campus after the 9th. Not a power she had to deploy, in the end.

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