Where are all the students with pockets full of “zoom lectures” refund cash?

I really thought I’d written everything there was to say on ministers exhorting students to “claim” refunds for Zoom lectures.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

But then on Saturday morning Michelle Donelan appeared on the front page of the Telegraph to rehash Nadhim Zahawi’s invitation to “revolt” over online learning from Monday.

It wasn’t just Donelan’s new-found acceptance of the legitimacy of “student satisfaction” – all the other big hits from the first album were in there too, including VC pay, free speech and statues. But it was the one that the Telegraph ran as the headline, because as we know, higher education is principally a consumer story these days.

She even revealed why she uses the term “Mickey Mouse” courses:

I use the term Mickey Mouse because some of these courses are Mickey Mouse in essence.”

I see.

To be completely fair to Donelan and her advisors here, while I might think the much of her material is simplistic, has tons of unintended consequences and so on, her skill at getting Conservative-friendly messages out with discipline, attracting repetitious and positive coverage, all with no (more) money and a heavily-delayed Augar response is pretty impressive.

The universities minister brief is very hard to tame, and they either end up representing the sector to government (usually to slow or block proposals) or representing the government/public/press to the sector (with an eye on their political career). The latter is likely much more stressful given the amount of criticism you’ll get from the people working in it, but you can’t fault the effort here.

If anything it’s the lack of scrutiny in the coverage that’s annoying.

The big message in the Telegraph piece is that “students should apply for refunds on their fees” because “at the end of the day, they’re consumers”. As I’ve said before I don’t see nearly as much wrong with that assertion as others, although it’s not the kind of consumer relationship that Donelan seems to keep claiming that it is.

In the piece, Donelan refers to the ring round she said she was going to do on Twitter earlier in the week:

I have had to really say to vice-chancellors, you need to ensure that you are delivering on what you promised to students because, as the Prime Minister outlined, we’ve got to learn to live with this virus now. We’ve got to get back to pre-pandemic life. Risk assessments can’t be used as an excuse not to host face-to-face teaching. Students have been leading the way in the [vaccination] stats.”

That last bit actually refers to actual advice from the actual Department for Education, whose revision to its official advice for higher education this week actually said:

Risk assessments should never be used to prevent providers delivering the full programme of face-to-face teaching and learning that they were providing before the pandemic.

Never let it be said that the science has got in the way of the politics with this government.

And what should students do if they’re not getting that full programme of face-to-face learning? Asked whether she advocates students applying for refunds, The Telegraph says is unequivocal on the matter:

Absolutely…they are consumers, at the end of the day. They’re paying a substantial amount of money that’s an investment in their own lives. They deserve that appeal right… Something that I did last year was work with the OIA to introduce a new group appeal so that they can appeal en masse, like a whole class, to make it easier. This is all about making sure that students are getting value for money.”

That “I worked with…” confection is one we’ve seen before, deployed endlessly over her “magic money twig” strategy of saying she had been “working with the OfS” to allow providers to spend student premium funding in a slightly different way in the earlier part of the pandemic.

v1 of that twig involved Donelan saying that £69m could be reprioritised on hardship in April, May and June 2020, but OfS says providers only spent £4.7m more on financial support than they’d ever planned to in that year – and even then doesn’t say how much was spent on hardship rather than bursaries and scholarships.

Here money is dangled again. “We saw refunds in the tens of thousands during the pandemic” is a clever little quote because it suggests that tens of thousands of refunds were issued, when in fact we have no data on that at all – what we do have is some case summaries from the OIA that tell us of a small number of cases where some students have seen payouts in the tens of thousands over cases that are nothing like the situations the Telegraph is talking about here.

As such the message from Donelan is as shameless as it ever was, insofar as it sets up the idea that students can get something they can’t, without ever being clear on what the basis would be be for a claim, how long that would take and how hard it would be. For example I know of a large group complaint that is pretty straightforward that’s being going on since May 2020, and there’s still no cash in those students’ pockets.

But even if the cash never gets there, the prospect that it might is generally what gets the headlines. Hence throughout the day the Independent has picked up the “refunds” angle, the Mail has had a punt, the Guardian has run it, the Evening Standard has a go, the Express covered an LBC discussion on it, and even the Press Association has written it up, which means it’ll be on the homepage of the Chronicle, Post, Argus and Express near you right now too.

Now I know that Camilla Tominey was hardly going to treat the interview with Donelan like an episode of HARDTalk, and I know that journalism is a tough trade these days. But as the latest round of coverage got posted up online, did it really not dawn on anyone involved to try to work out if it was actually possible or likely that students would end up with cash in their pocket if they complain about having some lectures on Teams?

I know that putting in the time to follow up stories and check facts and ask difficult questions of ministers is difficult and time-consuming. But Donelan has been repeatedly getting coverage for telling students they can complain to the OIA over “quality” since March 2020. Has it really not occurred to anyone to try to work out how many have, and why it is that they might have not have succeeded?

And I know that mainstream media is always going to simplify the stories in a way that will annoy the specialists like us here at Wonkhe towers. But surely at some point someone is going to twig either that there’s hardly anyone getting only online teaching, or that if they are getting some online teaching, they’re probably not really entitled to refunds?

Unless journalists really think that students are stupid enough to be sat on riches they’re lazily not claiming? They really aren’t.

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