Why are universities being allowed to be vague about in-person contact hours?

There’s a story in the Telegraph today that says that universities could be made to declare how much of their teaching will be online when they make offers to students, under plans being considered by the (Westminster) government.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The piece says that ministers are concerned that universities are continuing to offer lectures digitally rather than in person, despite official guidance stating that there is no longer any need for this.

If that all sounds familiar, it’s probably because the Times ran an almost identical story a couple of weeks ago:

Universities will have to tell students exactly how much face-to-face teaching they will get, before they start their degrees, Nadhim Zahawi has told The Times. The education secretary will challenge vice-chancellors to give school-leavers detailed data, broken down by course, before they commit and pay for degrees and accommodation, rather than setting out vague intentions.

This time around we have Michelle Donelan’s picture to accompany the story, along with a reminder that she is “phoning vice-chancellors personally” to follow up on reports that they are “failing to deliver the in-person learning that students expect”.

We thought about what might be coming on the site back when Zahawi made his suggestions in January, but here there’s a new bit of detail – The Telegraph suggests that universities could be obliged to state how extensive their in-person offering will be on the UCAS website.

That’s interesting because something equivalent used to exist in the old “Key Information Set” that had to be gathered, supplied to HESA and was then spat back out on the UCAS and Unistats websites, and in the form of a website widget to appear everywhere else.

I say used to – because back when HEFCE hosted a secor-led Higher Education Public Information Steering Group, a review it oversaw of the early years of the KIS dropped the collection and publication of the proportion of time spent in various learning and teaching activities on the basis that collecting information in a standardised, comparable format:

…was not always the best way of conveying this, particularly given the diversity of HE provision.”

That could easily be read as “what collecting in a standardised comparable way did was expose how thin in contact hours terms some provision was, in ways that probably weren’t quite justifiable pedagogically”, but in any event the idea was that:

Institutions are best placed to provide the rich, nuanced and contextualised information that students seek.”

That consultation of course also referred to what was then new guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority, which said that universities should publish:

Information about the composition of the course and how it will be delivered, and the balance between the various elements, such as the number and type of contact hours that students can expect (for example, lectures, seminars, work placements, feedback on assignments), the expected workload of students (for example the expected self-study time), and details about the general level of experience or status of the staff involved in delivering the different elements of the course.

Best practice guidance published by the four funding bodies of the UK went on to say:

Give an indication of typical class contact hours for level 4 study and whether the pattern changes at levels 5 and 6. In some disciplines, such as those with a studio, performance, laboratory or other practice element, class contact hours may include scheduled and supervised learning activities as well as lectures, seminars and tutorials.

And then in the context of the pandemic, as online teaching started to emerge as something more common, OfS re-interpreted as follows:

Sufficient information needs to be given to students… providers must set out information that includes how the course will be delivered… this includes the extent to which the course may be delivered online rather than face-to-face and how the balance between, lectures, seminars and self-learning may change. Prospective students will be particularly interested in the volume and arrangements of contact hours and support and resources for learning if this may take place online and virtually.

So here’s the thing. Maybe it’s the case that UCAS can somehow be persuaded to carry the information suggested – although presumably it would make more sense for HESA to be asked to collect for UCAS (and DiscoverUni) to link to, and there’s the small question of whether the rest of the UK funding bodies can be brought into the loop while we’re at it.

But the biggest question is about current compliance. The Telegraph piece (and its predecessor piece from earlier in the month) refers to research carried out by Paul Wiltshire, a retired accountant from Cornwall who has been campaigning against online learning since last summer.

Last July he started researching what universities were saying about their provision, and found that most weren’t offering anything like the sort of detail implied in the 2015 CMA guidance, the 20126 KIS consultation, the 2016 funding bodies best practice guide, or the 2021 OfS guidance. There was a hell of a lot of vague around. And having spent a long long time on university websites while stuck on several trains trying to get back from Stirling today, I can confirm that the problem hasn’t gone away.

You can see why that might be the case. Universities might well want to keep their commitments on contact hours – whether online or in-person – as vague as possible given continued uncertainty over funding, industrial strife, the remnants of a pandemic, and the desire to “not waste the crisis” by moving some provision into the cloud and out of costly physical spaces.

And given that students (and pointedly, their parents) have been complaining about contact hours for years, it’s also easy to see how the pandemic may well have just exacerbated a old problem – that people expect more teaching, contact and support from actual academic staff then they tend to get.

It may also be the case that providers have legal advice which questions the settled positions on “material information” described above or at least questions the OfS “online/offline split” revision.

But wanting to be vague and being allowed to be vague are two different things. If there is deep, systematic and sector-wide non-compliance right now, why aren’t any of the bodies charged with actually regulating the sector and securing compliance taking any action? Why is Michelle Donelan doing it, only in England, and over the phone?

7 responses to “Why are universities being allowed to be vague about in-person contact hours?

  1. Beautiful article. Thank you. I have been at this for 7 months. I’ll send you my research now that I spent 15 hours collecting on Thursday of this week.

  2. Actual contact hours are a pain to collect and report. The most straightforward way was probably the average per student per subject, based on actual historic module choice, but not all HEIs have that data to hand, and it would increase the burden significantly on that basis. It also comes with the usual risk – it’s subject not course and past not future, which starts to get misleading if you aren’t careful; it starts some perverse incentives (as eg our students both want more contact hours, with is logical, and consistently choose modules with fewer contact hours, also logical if you’re looking to maximise effort/reward). Otherwise you could do min/max, but again it starts to get messy, and first we have to define contact (also perverse incentives, gaming etc).

    I agree HEIs should provide proper information on in-person Vs online study though, even if it is still partly hedged by circumstance.

  3. It all links to the need for a fair, comprehensive, standardised U-S B2C contract with express terms based on the material information provided to applicants via a template of data that includes details about teaching delivery. All set out in 2016 at Occasional Paper No.60 on the OxCHEPS website, while the U-S contract has been proposed by Dennis Farrington since the early-90s!

  4. Being subject to CMA legislation has actually made it more difficult to change courses for the better. Whilst students need to be protected from detrimental change, the challenge is to not make positive change more difficult and less timely to implement.

  5. Might we be a bit clearer about “contact”? (1) Is being one of 400 students at an in-person lecture “contact”? (2) Is being one of 20 in an online seminar “contact”? (3) Is an asynchronous online conversation with a tutor “contact”? (4) Is individual feedback from a tutor on a student’s work “contact”? I’d say No to 1 and Yes to 2, 3 and 4. Why? Because I think “contact” means “Being known, heard, responded to”. Not just “Being in the same physical space at the same time”. But those are just my views. This is a conversation worth having with students. If we don’t have the conversation, we may be tackling the wrong problem. Which rarely ends well.

    1. Beautifully put and excellent examples. “In-person” in and of itself is not the point!

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