The government are apparently planning a radical overhaul of admissions (maybe), they have found some funding for research support, EU students will face higher fees in 2021/22, Education Questions in the Commons kept the Ministers on their toes, there’s the latest on student complaints, a brief mention of the B word and the sun has been shining.
University research support package
In coverage of the so called bailout deal announced earlier in the lockdown – which consisted of bringing the second instalment of student loan payments to universities forward by a few months and vaguely threatening proposals for a fund for restructuring universities that fail – it was made clear that no more would be forthcoming. But the government have reached down behind the sofa cushions and found a bit of extra money to support research, although like the additional student numbers (more on that later), it is limited and strings are attached. It was announced late on Friday night so made for a busy Saturday for pundits. You can read David Kernohan’s piece for Wonkhe here, Research Professional here, and THE cover it here.
There will be grant extensions to cover researchers’ salaries and other running costs for UKRI and some other grants, which will be very welcome, as there has been great concern about covering extensions to projects with no extra money. More details are still to be announced.
The main announcement, however, was of a new package of support for research-active universities. It looks odd on the face of it, to those outside the sector and unfamiliar with the weird cross subsidies that exist in the HE market:
- low-interest loans with long pay-back periods, supplemented by a small amount of government grants. In sharing responsibility for the future of science and research with our world-leading university system the government will cover up to 80% of a university’s income losses from international students for the academic year 20/21, up to the value of non-publicly funded research activity in that university.
So if you have a lot of international students who aren’t coming this year, you can get a loan or a grant (maybe) to cover your income loss, capped by how much funding you normally get from sources other than the government, i.e. businesses and charities as well as the university itself. Complicated? Yes. Targeted at a very particular small number of universities, yes, indeed. This sentence demonstrates the strangeness “Support is also capped at the level of an institution’s non-publicly funded research to ensure that funds are being directed towards universities conducting research.” What it is really saying is that there will be support for universities who fund their own research from the fees paid by international students, or from businesses or charities who won’t have any money this year. That’s not quite the same thing as “universities who do research”.
- So this: The international student metric when combined with the measure of ‘non-publicly funded research’ is a good proxy for overall Covid-19 losses to research revenue. In return for support, Government will be asking for universities to demonstrate how funds are being utilised to sustain research in areas typically funded by charities and business. We will also take into account the income HEIsreceive from business and charity research.
- And there is a catch: Universities will be required to demonstrate that funds are being spent on research and on retaining research talent. Universities will be expected to show they are taking their own steps to make efficiencies, in line with the rest of the economy, to protect their research bases. Precise metrics and outputs/outcomes will be developed as we develop the details of the policy over the next few weeks. There will be separate requirements for grant extension proposals.
Some universities will have limits on their borrowing.
And for the institutions (that the information calls “teaching intensive”) who don’t qualify – we’re back to the vaguely threatening restricting fund:
- The DfERestructuring Regime will look to support teaching intensive institutions where there is a case to do so and where intervention is possible and appropriate. The Government recognises the important role that higher education providers make to regional and local economies through the provision of high-quality courses aligned with local, regional and national economic and societal requirements. This will be within scope of the decision making process for intervention. Further detail on the Restructuring Regime will be announced in due course.
Radical overhaul of admissions?
Saturday’s Guardian had a headline about a leaked draft report on admissions changes. As the OfS have recently confirmed that they will be restarting their normal activity, presumably with the “paused” admissions review near the top of their list, it is not surprising that options are being considered.
The Guardian said: The models include:
- Exams results published in August as is currently the case, but with university and college terms starting in January, allowing five months for processing applications.
- Moving exam results forward into July and the start of the university term back into mid-October, allowing a 12-week window for students to apply.
- An unchanged timetable, with only a five-week window for the application process to run between exam results in August and the start of the university term in September, as now.
- University applications made before A-level results are received, but offers of places to students not released until after results are published, with no change to current timings.
Potential A level exam delay: Consistent with the story above in last Monday’s Oral Education Questions it was confirmed that the DfE is discussing moving A level exams to July 2021 to accommodate some of the C-19 disruption. The BBC and the Times covered the story. The Times noted:
- some head teachers suggested that a delay risked creating more difficulties. “It would mean either exam boards having a narrower window in which to mark millions of scripts, or results being published later, which would potentially run into the autumn term,” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL union, said. “This would affect progression to further and higher education. It’s important that the approach to next year’s exams supports pupils without creating more problems than it solves…”
The article goes on to note the Government have confirmed full funding for the virtual Oak National Academy suggesting that it is preparing for some disruption in the full return of pupils to ‘normal’ schooling. It also highlights that some of the support funding usually available has been cut (e.g. the year 7 catch up in English and Maths for weaker pupils). Alongside the announcements last week of the £1 billion funding programme to help schools support initiatives to bring children back on track after the home schooling disruption to their normal studies. There are likely to be implications for some disadvantaged children in the cuts alongside sharing the newly funded initiatives amongst a wider pool of pupils. It is raising further concerns for an access disadvantaged generation.
Recently EDSK (a think tank) published Admitting Mistakes: creating a new model for university admissions calling for a fair, transparent and equitable admissions process. It takes issue with the current system:
- This admissions system has remained almost unchanged for the past three decades, but this inertia should not necessarily be interpreted as an indication that the UCAS system is working well.
- Politicians from both major parties have raised serious concerns in recent months about university admissions practices, while the Office for Students (OfS) has launched a review of the entire admissions process in its capacity as regulator of the Higher Education (HE) sector. Given this intense pressure, maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. The new rules on admissions proposed by the OfS last month to ensure that universities demonstrate a ‘socially responsible approach’ during the COVID-19 crisis shows that it is perfectly feasible to change the admissions system – even at short notice. It is now simply a question of which changes ministers and regulators wish to make once the crisis subsides.
It also takes issue with the current practices tackling the use of predicted grades for university applications; the growth of ‘unconditional offers’ from universities; and the barriers facing disadvantaged students.
- In recent months, both the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and the OfS have referred to the importance of ‘trust’ in the context of university admissions because they realise how crucial it is that students, parents and teachers trust the admissions process when so much money and so many hopes and aspirations rest on its shoulders. In light of this, it is deeply concerning how wealth and privilege continue to unduly influence who gets accepted onto university degrees, particularly at the most prestigious institutions. This inevitably results in an overwhelming sense of unfairness as well as risking a catastrophic loss of trust – not just in the admissions process, but in the education system as a whole.
- The reduction in autonomy over admissions proposed by the OfS in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 is intended to prevent universities from undermining students’ interests and threatening the stability of the HE sector during the crisis, yet the protection of students and maintaining the stability of the sector should be permanent features of our admissions system rather than temporary measures. A fundamental change is therefore needed to make sure that the admissions system prioritises the interests of students, not universities, after the current crisis is over. To this end, it is necessary for universities to give up some of the autonomy they have in relation to how they attract and select applicants each year.
Finally it recommends that in return for the financial support that they are receiving from government to mitigate the impact of COVID-19…universities should be required to accept a new model for the whole admissions cycle. It seems the authors are under the impression that the C-19 financial support is a sufficiently worthwhile and substantial enticement.
While the aggressive language in the press release may rile some in the sector many of its recommendations such as a national contextual offer are already being discussed. The difficulty with such blanket policies is that some students still fall through the cracks as drawing thresholds always results in winners and losers. For example, the report’s recommendation 5 doesn’t include student carers within their definition of greatest disadvantage, and there is little mention of ethnicity throughout the report.
Nevertheless they proposed a nuanced version of post qualification admissions. No predicted grades will be submitted to institutions (although presumably level 3 teachers will still have to produce them) and prospective students instead chose 10 degrees ranked in preference order. On results day students achieving the required (fixed) grade level are automatically placed based on preference order. Where courses are oversubscribed all applicants who are eligible are entered into a lottery. Where courses are undersubscribed still only those who reach the level will be admitted. It sounds simple but when you sit quietly with the concept for a moment you begin to realise it the cracks, for example removing the choice for a student to change their mind – or trade up if they perform better than their teacher predicted (which itself has long been a disadvantage conundrum). There’s also the gaming of the system – if you want that place on that popular oversubscribed course and you’re certain of the grades there will be ways to maximise your likelihood of achieving it based on your preferences…and who will advise prospective students on the game – parents, social networks, teachers and careers staff (again resources which some disadvantaged students lack). The report isn’t to be dismissed and provides a welcome interjection on the admissions system which is due for overhaul in some shape or form, however, it doesn’t offer all the answers it claims to. Perhaps because there isn’t a system which is flawless and which can guarantee equity, particularly for those prospective students with the least support and resources.
Wonkhe have a good blog on the report considering it fairly and offering critique where they see holes. The comments at the end are worth a read too, while most establish serious points Sarah smiled at this one: Think tanks are supposed to think from outside the box.
Diversity in HE
UCAS have highlighted that
- nursing and social work degrees have the most diverse pool of applicants compared to other major undergraduate subject areas. Health and social care courses are among the subjects attracting the highest proportion of applications and acceptances from black applicants, mature students, and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Other key facts:
- For all subjects allied to medicine, 16% of acceptances are from students from the black ethnic group (the highest proportion for any wider subject group), followed by social studies courses, with 13%.
- 42% of students accepted onto social work courses are aged over 30, the highest proportion of any subject. Nursing courses are second, with 29% of acceptances from students in this age group.
- Social work is the only subject (with more than 150 applicants) that has more students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying (1,055 applicants), than from the most advantaged backgrounds (1,000 applicants). This a ratio of just 0.94 applicants from advantaged backgrounds for each disadvantaged applicant – the lowest ratio of all subjects.
- Nursing follows with a ratio of 1.12, with 2,100 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, alongside 2,350 from the most advantaged backgrounds. Both subjects have similar patterns of accepting students from a wide range of backgrounds.
- While male applicants remain in the minority, the number of men applying for nursing grew by 8.5% to 5,370, with the number of acceptances also growing (by 7.1% to 2,700).
UCAS are using the welcome news on diversity to urge more prospective students to apply for autumn 2020 entry. They state Around 40% of adult nursing and social work courses are still accepting applications…with some universities having up to 50 places available. The vacancy level seems slightly surprising on several counts. First the Government are offering bursaries for specified courses, second they are employment gap areas (and the Government has an additional 5,000 places not yet allocated to institutions), third the positive and high profile PR generated for key services such as nursing through the pandemic was predicted to increase demand for nursing, finally demand from mature students (who make up a bigger proportion of the cohort) could be expected to increase if lockdown has prompted a career re-evaluation. UCAS do note that mature student apply later in the summer months than school leavers and that at January nursing applications were up by 6%.
Postgraduate BAME data: The UK Council for Graduate Education have published a policy briefing summarising the access and participation of Black, Asian and minority ethnicities in UK postgraduate research. Key points:
- BAME students participate in postgraduate research at a lower level that those enrolled in undergraduate studies.
- Between 2016/17 – 2018/19 the proportion of BAME postgraduate research students (PGRs) grew by 0.13% however, this rate of growth means it would take 51.8 years for BAME participation in postgraduate research to reach the equivalent proportion at undergraduate level.
- 15% more white PGRs received financial contributions for their tuition fee than BAME PGRs
- More white PGRs (19%) qualified in 2018/19 than BAME PGRs (16%)
Wonkhe have two blogs on access and disadvantage:
There is also the promised report from the Social Mobility Commission: Apprenticeships and social mobility: fulfilling potential. It raises concerns over the structural barriers within apprenticeships and concludes that they are not fulfilling their social climbing potential.
the introduction of the (2017) apprenticeship levy led to a “collapse in overall apprenticeship starts that hit disadvantaged learners hardest”
- a 36% decline in apprenticeship starts by people from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared with 23% for others
- just 13% of degree-level apprenticeships, the fastest growing and most expensive apprenticeship option, goes to apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds
- more than 80% of apprenticeships undertaken by learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are in enterprises in the services, health, education or public administration sectors
- on average, apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds earn less than apprentices from more privileged backgrounds
- there is a 16% boost to wages for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds who complete their training, compared with 10% for others
The report calls on the Government to address concerns and channel resources directly where it can have the greatest social benefit.
There was also a slight FE emphasis in one of Donelan’s PQ answers (reminding us the FE remains an underfunded sector and the Government has plans, even if they aren’t sharing them yet):
Q – Mohammad Yasin: In addition to maintaining current commitments to widen participation and extend bursaries for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, will the Minister make sure that the necessary extra funding is provided so that universities such as the University of Bedfordshire can play a key role in retraining and reskilling young and mature students to meet the serious employment challenges ahead?
A – Michelle Donelan:
- The hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that access and participation are key priorities for this Government, and the Office for Students has launched access and participation measures for every institution. Higher education plays a key role in filling the skills needs of the economy, but so does further education, and our priority is to ensure quality provision and that students can make informed choices that are in the best interests of their career destinations.
EU Student Fees Decision
Very unsurprisingly, Michelle Donelan issued a written ministerial statement confirming that EU, EEA and Swiss national students will no longer be eligible for home fee status or Student Finance England financial support from 2021/22. The rules also apply to FE and apprenticeships. EU students starting in 2020/21 will continue to be classed as home students. Irish nationals will be preserved as home student status under the Common Travel Area arrangement.
The announcement may encourage some EU students to take up UK study in September (despite online blended provision being the main method on offer). Likewise the sector anticipates a drop in EU student numbers from 2021/22.
Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, responded to the announcement:
- Universities would have preferred the certainty of current arrangements for EU students in England being extended for those starting courses in 2021/22. However, it is important to note that EU students starting courses in autumn 2020 will continue to pay home fees for the duration of their course and be eligible for the UK’s EU settlement scheme if they arrived before the end of this year.
- The government’s new Graduate Route – starting next summer – also means that students who are not eligible for the settlement scheme will have the opportunity to stay and work in the UK for two years after completing their studies. This will apply to those who initially have to study by distance or blended learning because they are unable to travel to the UK to start in autumn due to Covid-19. Universities are committed to working with government on further measures to support international students to study at UK universities.
- Our message to international students is that UK universities are ready to welcome and support you through your studies. Whether you choose to study in the UK this year, or in the future, you will receive a high-quality education and learn skills that will benefit you for years to come.
Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, puts it plainly:
- Today’s announcement will be seen as bad news inside universities. To date, EU students have benefited from lower fees and access to student loans that are subsidised by UK taxpayers. Together, these have lowered the financial obstacles to studying in the UK. My message to any EU citizen wishing to benefit from the current arrangements is that it is not too late to apply for entry in 2020, before the new rules come into force next year.
- In the past, we have shown that higher fees and no more access to student loans could risk a decline of around 60% in the number of EU students coming to the UK to study. If that happens, our universities will be less diverse and less open to influences from other countries.
- However, it is morally and legally difficult to continue charging lower fees to EU citizens than we already charge to people from the rest of the world once Brexit has taken full effect. So today’s decision is not a huge surprise. Moreover, history suggests that the education on offer in our universities is something people are willing to pay for. So, if we adopt sensible post-Brexit migration rules and if universities work very hard to recruit from other EU nations, it is likely that many of our fellow Europeans will still wish to study here.
- Above all, we need to make it abundantly clear to people from the EU and beyond that our universities remain open to all.
Research Professional have a write up on the fee changes.
Michelle Donelan also answered oral questions specifically on international students describing her
- two-tier covid response to attract international students: first, by working across government to remove and reduce the logistical barriers faced by students, including visa issues; and secondly, by communicating that the UK is open for business via advertising and open letters to international students, our embassies, and international media.
She also reminded Parliament about the International Education Champion appointment.
Since the parliamentary question session Donelan (and her devolved counterparts) have composed a 6 page letter to international students. It sings the praises of a British education, urges them to apply for the 2020/21 recruitment round (for which visas will be ready in time) and reminds them of their eligibility for the 2-year graduate visa. Excerpts:
- Although admissions processes and modes of teaching might look slightly different this year, the UK’s world-class universities are continuing to recruit international students and you are encouraged to apply even if you are unable to travel to the UK to meet usual timelines. Universities will be flexible in accommodating your circumstances where possible, including if you are unable to travel to the UK in time for the start of the academic year. We have seen some fantastic and innovative examples of high-quality online learning being delivered by institutions across the UK, and the sector is already working hard to prepare learning materials for the summer and autumn terms.
- The UK cares immensely about the health and wellbeing of international students, and ensuring they are safe is our number one priority… To keep number of transmissions in the UK as low as possible, and to protect UK residents and international students in the UK, all international arrivals are now required to supply their contact and accommodation information and self-isolate in their accommodation for fourteen days on arrival into the UK. We have been clear that universities are responsible for, and must support their students on arrival to the UK. We are proud that UK universities are already demonstrating how seriously they are taking this responsibility, in ensuring that their students are safe and well cared for both upon arrival and for the duration of their stay.
- In addition to support from their universities, NHS services are available to both domestic and international students. International students will always be able to access treatment that clinicians consider is immediately necessary or urgent at no upfront cost. No charges apply to testing for coronavirus…
The second batch of data from the 2017/18 Graduate Outcomes survey has been released, there is even more to come on 9 July. The tables are interactive allowing you to look at employment rates for different qualification levels (e.g. undergraduates, foundation degrees, doctoral research, taught masters and all the others) at HE or FE, full or part time.
There are also salary bands that are adjustable to look at the characteristics of the students within them. For example the below looks at pay levels by subject studied in HE institutions. It shows a clear salary gain in the high skilled roles but little difference in pay between low and medium skilled jobs.
The pay bands can be examined by age, ethnicity, gender, and disability. Below demonstrates the impact of gender for undergraduates, the postgraduate picture shows more clustering at the higher pay bands. No matter which level of qualification is selected males always number more than females earning the highest pay band.
There is a chart illustrating the proportions of students who are satisfied with their current activity, its fit with their future plans, and whether they are using what they learnt. It varies greatly when you adjust for low medium or high skilled roles, with the low skilled employees feeling least satisfied. And this page breaks down the three elements of satisfaction (meaningful, fit future, useful) even further looking at it by degree subject area, degree classification, salary and by provider.
And at the bottom of the page you can view BU’s student opinion on meaningful, fit for future plans, and useful (it is too large to display here). BU had a response rate of 51%, with higher numbers of postgraduate research students responding.
All the tables are interactive and able to be cut by different parameters – go ahead and have a play!
Wonkhe have a good blog digging into and interpreting meaning from the latest data.
In Parliamentary Questions, Graduate outcomes also received a mention with the stock answer referring to T levels and promoting technical routes. Also:
Q – Neil O’Brien: The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that for 30% of students, the economic return on their degree was negative both for them and for taxpayers. Surely with such clear economic evidence that so many young people would be better off if they took a different route, it is time to rebalance from just higher education to a stronger technical education system?
A – Michelle Donelan:
- It is important that students make as informed choices as possible from a range of high-quality courses, and university is not the only or the best route for certain careers. Some students may be better placed if they do higher technical qualifications or apprenticeships. That is why the Secretary of State is spearheading a revolution in further education in this country, including the introduction of T-levels.
HEPI have published PhD Life: The UK student experience. It highlights that for UK students:
- the average PhD student works 47 hours per week, which is over 50% more than the average undergraduate and three hours less than the average academic
- meaning PhD students earn less than the minimum wage (if they are on the basic Research Council stipend)
- 78% of PhD students are satisfied with their degree of independence
- 63% of PhD students see their supervisor for less than one hour per-week
- 23% of PhD students would change their supervisor if they were starting their PhD again now
- 80% of PhD students believe a career in research can be lonely and isolating
- over one-third (37%) of PhD students have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by PhD study
- one-quarter (25%) of PhD students feel they have been bullied and 47% believe they have witnessed bullying, and
- one-fifth (20%) of PhD students feel they have been discriminated against and 34% believe they have witnessed discrimination.
The data informing the report is based on two surveys taking place between June and November 2019 by the Wellcome trust and Nature.
The report includes testimonials capturing PhD students’ perspectives on their situation:
- Due to being [funded] by a stipend and not through student finance, and not technically being employed by the university means that I am not eligible for childcare funding. The cost of childcare is around £11,000 per year, my stipend is £14,200.
- ..almost all the staff I meet from different universities are “pals from [insert elitist uni here]”. As such they have very little understanding of the challenges someone from a “normal” or disadvantaged background faces, especially financially, giving the overwhelming impression that your skills are secondary to your class.
- The higher up you go, the more male and white-dominated the environment becomes. There’s only one full female professor in my whole institute, and I have genuinely never met a black PI [Principal Investigator] or professor since starting my PhD.
Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, commented:
- Too often, people taking PhDs are regarded as neither one thing nor the other. They are not seen as students the way undergraduates are and they are not seen as staff the way academics are. Sometimes, PhD students receive excellent support but, too often, they fall through the cracks, making them demoralised and unhappy. When that happens, we all lose because the world desperately needs people who push forward the frontiers of knowledge.
- We know far more about undergraduates than we used to and we now need similar levels of research on the student experience of postgraduates to help policymakers, regulators and funders improve their lives.
In the Foreword to the new report, Dr Katie Wheat, Head of Engagement and Policy at Vitae, said:
- This report makes an important contribution to current debates on research culture by presenting the views of doctoral researchers in the UK extracted from the recent Wellcome Trust and Nature reports. It highlights several areas of concern, including working conditions, wellbeing, supervision and incidents of bullying and harassment…The findings chime with growing recognition of the need to improve research culture.
Student Numbers Cap
The deadline for universities to apply for additional places expired on Friday.
Emma Hardy questions the reasoning behind the threshold levels set for continuation and graduate outcome rates which determine whether a provider can bid for some of the 5,000 non-healthcare course additional places for the 2020/21 recruitment round. She also asks why these indicators were chosen rather than using the TEF, whether an equalities impact assessment was undertaken, and if the DfE considered a HEIs social intake and the communities served when setting the rates (because they appear to discriminate against certain types of provider).
The additional 5,000 biddable places within the student numbers cap restrictions allow the Government to exert a small measure of control over which courses they wish to see more (or less) of within the UK. In this vein Research Professional had an interesting narrative on Monday covering Australia who intend to more than double tuition fees for some arts subjects, raise fees for business and law, and lowered fees for some in-demand courses which contribute to national gap and growth needs. The reforms will be implemented in 2021 – if they pass the parliamentary hurdles.
- +28% law and commerce studies
- +113% arts and humanities (making a three year degree roughly £24,150 in UK terms)
- -62% maths and agriculture
- -46% teaching, nursing, clinical psychology, and languages (including English)
- -20% science, health, architecture, environmental science, IT and engineering
- 0% (no change) for medicine, dental and veterinary
The price rises are per unit of study so it encourages students who might study history to also consider teaching too, or to add in a language.
The changes are designed to incentive students to follow the career growth areas that Australia needs. They aiming to get 39,000 students on skills shortage courses by 2023 and 100,000 by 2030 to produce the ‘job ready graduates’ that Australia needs.
The Australian Government also intends to increase support for rural and indigenous students through the reforms. They will direct fund universities to run bespoke programmes with local significance to attract indigenous students from the lowest participation rate areas and guarantee a place at public universities. Other reforms include a $48.8m research grants programme for regional universities to collaborate with industry, and $21m to set up more regional university study centres to provide tutoring and IT support for students in remote areas.
Research Professional highlight that the UK Government could utilise the LEO data to set price variation in the levels of student loan that would be offered to priority and non-priority courses. Also that if more students took courses with higher salaries the repayment levels of loans would be higher – ultimately saving the public purse. Although one does wonder whether so many of these high paid roles are standing vacant or whether such a policy increasing the volume of graduates following some programmes would simply displace the current holders of such posts. Nethertheless, it is food for thought for the Government who love a decent worked example from elsewhere. Particularly with the response to the Augar report (which advocated cutting humanities tuition fee/loans down to £7,500) not due until the spending review.
Ant Bagshaw (ex-Wonkhe, now working in Australia) has a blog on the proposals and what this might mean for UK HE. As ever there are some interesting comments to the blog. And the Guardian have an opinion piece taking issue with the Australian proposal for job ready graduates.
Returning to the UK student numbers cap there is an interesting piece from a specialist institution explaining how the student number controls will reduce access for those from certain disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Government has also released the latest information on how the student number cap will be run. Wonkhe summarise it:
- It suggests that the controls will apply to fee-loan and self-funded full time undergraduates, with exemptions for new providers and students retaking A levels in the autumn. Franchised provision will count towards the cap of the registering institution, and this will not change if the agreement is terminated. It appears that number restrictions will apply to providers that do not recruit via UCAS, though we get little information as to how this will work in practice.
- According to the same document, the list of specified subjects for additional places will not be changed, and includes subjects which relate to skills or professions at risk of shortage in the economy, or that “generate positive economic returns for the individual and the taxpayer”. This marks the first time longitudinal salary data has been used in higher education policymaking.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator has published a second briefing note on their approach to complaints arising from C-19. These excerpts make their approach to complaints clear:
- Consumer protection legislation has not been suspended for students. This means that providers still need to deliver learning and other services that are consistent with students’ reasonable expectations.
- What students can reasonably expect, and what providers can reasonably be expected to deliver, is likely to change and evolve as circumstances change and evolve, especially if restrictions are tightened again. But providers should be planning to deliver what was promised – or something at least broadly equivalent to it – and to ensure that learning outcomes can be met. It’s unlikely to be reasonable not to do that, especially now the initial crisis period has passed.
- Where providers have not or decide they cannot deliver what was promised they will need to consider how to put that right. A blanket refusal to consider tuition fee refunds in any circumstances is not reasonable. There may be groups of students that are particularly affected, and providers should take steps to identify those groups and address their issues. But they also need to consider concerns raised by students about their individual circumstances.
- Some students may feel unable to continue with their studies because the way their course will be delivered has changed materially, their personal circumstances have changed, or they are shielding or are very anxious. Providers should consider requests for deferrals sympathetically and should be ready to depart from their normal policy where it is reasonable to do so. [This is interesting in light of recent media reports that second or third year students wish to defer for a year rather than continue with online teaching in subjects such as theatre studies.]
- We can look at complaints about what was promised and what was delivered, but we can’t look at concerns that involve academic judgment such as the quality of academic provision.
- We can consider (for example) a complaint that a provider did not cover subject areas that it said it would; that a student’s supervisor was unavailable; that a student didn’t benefit from teaching because they could not access it, or the delivery method did not work for them; that a provider did not support its students adequately; or that the provider did not follow a reasonable assessment process.
- But an assessment of the quality of what has been delivered is likely to involve academic judgment, which we can’t look at…This means that we can’t look at a complaint that teaching was not of an adequate academic standard; that an online teaching session was just not as good as it would have been face to face; that the student’s work was worth a higher mark; or that a postgraduate student did not get the right academic guidance from their supervisor.
- We will look at whether what the provider has done is reasonable in the circumstances – so reasonable delivery in the middle of lockdown is likely to look different to reasonable delivery in a more managed and planned environment.
The lack of judgement over quality of academic delivery slams the door on the Universities Minister’s claims to contact the ombudsmen if students aren’t able to resolve concerns directly with their provider.
There is also clear emphasis on individual student differences:
- Some students are more seriously affected than others…Arrangements that might work well for many students may not work for all and providers should be proactive about identifying and supporting students who may need additional help. Students are likely to encounter all sorts of accessibility issues. Online teaching arrangements may not work for some students with learning or processing differences. Some students will be shielding or have caring responsibilities that continue even after lockdown restrictions are eased. Some will have poor internet connection – some will not have access to IT equipment at all. Some will simply not be able to work effectively from the space they are living in.
- Careful thought and planning is needed to address these issues in advance, whenever possible. Planning that starts with meeting the needs of those likely to have accessibility issues is more likely to result in arrangements that work for everyone.
And a pro-active approach is urged:
- Providers also need to seek out students who are not engaging with online delivery, and those whom they know may find it difficult because of their individual circumstances.
- Some students such as those who had planned to study abroad or take up industry placements may be facing additional uncertainties. Providers may need to give those students more support and advice, for example on accommodation and financial issues.
- A rigid adherence to regulations and processes is unlikely to be fair: empathy and flexibility are key.
Meanwhile the NHS is encouraging students to join their mass action complaint chain to win the chance to REDO, REIMBURSE, WRITE-OFF (compensation funding for reimbursements, a debt write-off, or the chance to redo the year at no extra cost). Research Professional report that
- the NUS estimates that around 20 per cent of students have been unable to access their learning at all during the pandemic and 33 per cent do not believe it to have been good quality. Particularly badly affected, the union says, are the many disabled students who have not received reasonable adjustments remotely, those who have lost access to studio, lab or workshop space, and students on placements.
Claire Sosienski Smith, VP HE at NUS, stated:
- We know the scale of the disruption has been so vast that we need a national sector-wide response from government for this, including funding from Westminster… even if students complain to their individual institutions, how will universities afford it when the UK government haven’t announced a single penny of additional funding to support them? Our plea to the UK government is clear: you must offer tangible help to students who can’t access their education right now.
On the Government’s insistence that students individually take up their complaint with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator Zamzam Ibrahim, NUS President, said:
- We were told students were going to be ‘empowered consumers’ but actually, when something like this happens, we feel we’ve got less rights than if we’d booked an Airbnb. The UK government are desperate to reduce this to a series of individual problems. It’s a total betrayal of trust to the thousands of students who are now facing lifelong debts for a once-in-a-lifetime education they haven’t received.
HEPI have a guest blog – Learning from lockdown: harnessing tech to improve the student experience. It begins:
- The recent transition to online learning has been as rapidas it has been impressive. Many universities have put very large elements of their curricula and assessments online in just a few short weeks.
- Things that would previously have taken years to plan and execute have been designed, developed and implemented with alacrity. In short, there has been a huge amount of digital acceleration in universities since the advent of the pandemic.
- However, let’s not kid ourselves; what has been achieved recently is mostly basicand will be largely ephemeral. I’ve heard it said that the transition is more about remote learning than online learning – about adding new tools to old pedagogy, rather than digitally enabling education across the board.
Next it considers the levels at which universities engage most fully with online learning. It concludes with a plug for Jisc and states:
- The big effort that many universities are embarking on this summer is to develop more extensive, robust and higher quality online learning experiences for their students. Those that created a digital strategy a few years ago and invested in digital infrastructure, skills, content and applications must be feeling a little smug – and relieved. But it’s never too late to start on technology enablement and now is an ‘opportune’ time.
- I suggest that there is more than enough technology and written experience out there about what works well. Universities need to harness both to capitalise on the newfound energy and goodwill among staff and students.
It has been a season of high-profile step downs. The latest is Sir Michael Barber who will not seek a second term as Chair of the OfS, meaning he will step down in March 2021. Like most of those relinquishing roles he still has a parliamentary to do list before he can return to his garden and long walks – he has agreed to lead a review into digital learning. The review will consider how universities and other higher education providers can continue to enhance online teaching and learning for the new academic year, and explore longer term opportunities for digital teaching and learning.
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, commented on Sir Michael’s decision to step down:
- I have hugely valued Sir Michael’s leadership, insight and advice during his time as Chair and I have enjoyed our working relationship.
- I am very thankful to him for his work leading the set up and transformation of the OfS, and particularly for his work tackling unconditional offers, senior executive pay and grade inflation.
- As the higher education sector emerges from the pandemic, I look forward to the findings of the review into ways of enhancing the quality of online learning and driving innovation, which will be critical for the future of the sector.
Let’s hope Sir Michael’s review receives ministerial attention quicker than that of the TEF or the Augar reports.
We haven’t mentioned the ‘B’ word more than in passing recently. However, we’re halfway through the transition period and the Government is adamant it will end without extension on 31 December. Little progress has been made in talks and businesses are fearful of no deal particularly following the economic downturn associated with the pandemic. Dods have a Brexit briefing examining the key areas of contention in the talks, the possibility of an extension, and the implementation hurdles that need to be overcome before the end of the year.
The House of Commons Library have issued a briefing paper on the impact of easing lockdown restrictions within the FE & HE sectors (in England). The paper covers the expected issues including re-opening campuses, prospective student numbers (2020/21), and temporary student number controls.
APPG Universities: Ex-universities minister Chris Skidmore has been appointed co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary interest group for Universities. Daniel Zeichner continues to also co-chair the APPG. Chris states: I look forward to continuing to make the case for why our world leading UK universities can drive innovation, lift social mobility and regenerate local economies- and why they deserve support. Chris has also committed to a monthly spot writing for Research Professional too. Between Chris and Jo Johnson it seems Michelle Donelan’s time in the spotlight will be harried by two ex-Ministers who are willing to speak out. This is likely good news for the sector (for now) as Donelan has been keen to stick closely to the party line to date.
Contract Cheating; If you’ve been following this topic in the policy update for a while you’ll be aware that Lord Storey continues his campaign to stamp out essay mills and academic cheat services. He often asks nuanced parliamentary questions on the topic and this week he got an encouraging answer. Here it is in full:
Q – Lord Storey: Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on academic performance in those countries who have banned contract cheating services; and what plans they have, if any, to adopt similar policies. [HL5328]
A – Baroness Berridge:
- The government is aware that legislation has been introduced in several countries to ban contract cheating services, including in New Zealand, several states in the USA and, most recently, Ireland. It should also be noted that a bill was introduced in Australia in December which, if passed, would make it an offence to provide or advertise academic ‘contract cheating’ services in higher education.
- We would be willing to consider supporting any legislation, including a Private Members’ Bill, that is workable and that contains measures that would eliminate essay mills in ways that cannot be delivered through other means, provided that the Parliamentary time permitted.
- Ministers have called on universities, sector bodies, educational technology companies and online platforms to do everything in their power to help eradicate academic cheating of any kind from our world-class higher education sector. We have set a clear expectation that the Office for Students (OfS) should take a visible lead in challenging the sector to eliminate the use of essay mills. We expect the OfS to work with the members of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment to ensure that the sector has the support it needs and that it is taking firm and robust action to ensure that this threat to the integrity of the higher education system is being tackled.
- Financial and educational support for postgraduate students whose education is now online.
- This question is about schools rather than HE but it reminds us that young/student carers may be more disadvantaged as they may have had to self-isolate throughout lockdown to protect the vulnerable condition of those they care for.
Oral questions in the House of Commons on Further and Higher Education covered a range of topics this week (no new news). Some are covered in other sections. The student number cap, international students, support for students and the economy all featured.
Research Professional cover all the major HE oral questions and add a little entertainment value in their descriptions.
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