As universities cling onto their Covid measures, students have quietly found new bargaining powers

28 Sep

Over the weekend, readers of this site may remember that I wrote about the GP crisis; in short, the fact that many surgeries around the country have continued to operate in pandemic conditions, in spite of the successful vaccine roll out – and the economy being fully reopened.

On a similar note, universities have been tentative about getting back to normal, with reports of them enforcing face masks, social distancing and even vaccine passports for events on campus. The measure attracting the most negative media attention, however, is the use of online courses in academia.

Recently it was revealed, for instance, that 20 out of 24 Russell Group universities would maintain what’s now called “blended learning”; a sophisticated way of describing face-to-face and online teaching combined. Nottingham University even has plans to use “pre-recorded teaching materials” on its courses, which it can presumably recycle numerous times among students.

With undergraduates paying £9,250 a year for their degrees, it’s unsurprising that there’s been huge backlash against universities’ plans. People could understand the need for online measures during the pandemic, but not now.

So why are universities doing this? And what is to be done about it?

The most sympathetic explanation is that administrators – and sometimes students – are simply fearful about Coronavirus outbreaks, which can lead to localised ones too.

It makes sense that the activity administrators are most likely to put online is lectures, as opposed to small seminars, due to the fact that tens – and even hundreds – of students gather there, making them potential “superspreader” events.

Professor Dennis Hayes, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Derby and the Director of Academics for Academic Freedom, also points out just how much money universities spent “for campuses to be Covid safe” and that “they’re very wary about dropping everything” should there be a sudden change in the UK’s situation. Measures, for all their inconvenience, are designed to prevent future disruption. 

But critics of the current system say universities have used Covid as an excuse to cut costs – and that the pandemic has simply accelerated their pre-existing goal to move courses online. They will point out that contact time with tutors has been declining for a very long time (and I empathise with this position as a graduate of 2010, who had two hours of teaching time per week in her final year).

It will also reinforce suggestions that the UK has become overly dependent on overseas students for business. Perhaps administrators are more worried about catering to this market, by way of online content, than trying to ensure a “normal” campus experience for the students already there.

As with GPs, the Government will be keen to get universities back to normal. Hayes thinks “a very clear statement about the importance of face-to-face teaching would be welcome” from the Government; “it would win support from university managers”.

Chris Skidmore, who was Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, warns that the Government needs a “national strategy” for accommodation, lest “another variant comes along”.

One of the Covid measures that has been most unfair for students surrounds their accommodation. Many were banned from it during the peak of the pandemic, despite paying full cost.

“Government could be providing accommodation support for students that’s outside of the tuition fee, particularly if we go into another lockdown and students have to leave their accommodation”, Skidmore adds, pointing out the large disparities in whether students got a rebate or not.

This idea might help to alleviate the quiet “refund war”, if I may, that’s been taking place between universities and students. A month ago, it was reported that University College London had paid a total of £68,748.33 in tuition refunds due to Covid in the last two years.

This came as something of a shock to the university’s President and Provost, who previously said it was “just not possible” to provide students with a refund, as online learning is “very expensive”.

Actually, students have more powers than ever before to pressure their universities. This is not only thanks to student unions clubbing together (more here), but due to a change of rules from The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIAHE), an independent body set up to review student complaints about higher education providers in England and Wales.

It now allows for “Large Group Complaints”, described as instances when there’s a “high degree of commonality between complaints and where the complaints could be considered collectively”.

Essentially, this means large numbers of students can co-ordinate a complaint; if they feel, for instance, that they were sold a course much different than the one they got.

Moreover, market forces are going to have an effect on universities. Students now have a much greater idea of which ones are going to offer “blended learning”, and that will feed into their UCAS choices. 

In the background, they also know that there are new non-graduate opportunities. The hospitality crisis has been the subject of alarming headlines, but for young people, it may present choices against overpriced, online degrees.

In short, the media coverage has made it easy to believe that students are victims in the university equation; and they have been dealt a bad hand in many ways.

But there are also signs of a pushback against a sector that has long taken its consumers for granted. By all indications, that’s about to change.

Chris Skidmore: Thinking, fast and slow. Why we need a long-term Education Recovery Plan.

20 Jan

Chris Skidmore is a former Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister between 2018-2020, and is MP for Kingswood.

As the first few weeks of 2021 pass in lockdown, looking depressingly like 2020, many parents will be struggling attempting to juggle working full-time remotely with home schooling their children. As I write this, for instance, I’m sitting on the floor of my son’s bedroom, attempting to be as far away as possible from the alternate shouting and screams of three children six and under. Thankfully, today is my turn to catch up on the work I’ve missed. Over the past few days, instead I’ve been immersed in the Night Pirates, Number Blocks, phonics, reading and handwriting tasks, maths, comprehension, in what seems a never-ending timetable of tasks.

My guilt at never seeming to be able to teach the work set each day is matched only by my admiration for my children’s teachers who seem to have assembled a vast array of lessons, videos and materials at short notice— and whose talent for engaging children is clearly a vocation. A talent which I’m increasingly coming to suspect that I am lacking in. Those that can, teach, those that can’t… well, become Tory MPs perhaps.

It’s clear that despite my best efforts, my own children aren’t getting the expert educational experience that I know they would had they been at school. I’m sure it’s a worry and concern of every parent — especially for those who in these trying circumstances simply don’t have access to laptops or digital equipment to even complete the tasks set of them.

While it is right that there has been a clear focus on ensuring disadvantaged students and those affected by digital poverty don’t miss out on an education, however, we must recognise that every pupil of every age will be scarred by the pandemic. Too much learning has been lost, and too many children will find their educational outcomes affected, to simply return to business as usual. It’s why we need to start thinking now about a long-term education recovery plan for our entire education system — one that encompasses early years to universities and beyond.

To start with, we must start think long-term about the scale of the challenge now. We cannot afford to simply react to events, waiting to see what happens with the spread of the virus and its containment, before we decide the next stages of an entire generation’s future. The impact of the pandemic will emerge like the widening ripples in a pond when a stone has been thrown: its impact, in particular its educational impact, will be with us for years, a fact which we must come to terms with and have a strategic plan to help counter.

Already the Chair of the Education Select Committee and educational leaders have called for a redesign of the examination system. What is needed foremost, however, is a definitive understanding of the outcomes that we wish to achieve, before moving onto the processes to deliver this.

Most importantly, is perhaps the recognition that with the Key Stage assessments abandoned for this year, we will urgently need a system by which we can monitor individual pupil progress, so that pupils at risk of educational failure due to the pandemic can be rescued as quickly as possible, and given the individual support and tuition that they need to get back on track. This should be viewed as the critical mission. Identifying those pupils at risk of educational disadvantage means new forms of assessment, and data collection, will need to be considered. Above all, there must be transparency and a common approach to what is being measured.

Another key part of a long-term education recovery plan should also be the curriculum in schools. Not to change the curriculum, but to provide all schools with the ability to teach a “Recovery Curriculum”. I’ve seen already some fantastic work taking place in my own local authority, South Gloucestershire, which is modelling a Recovery Curriculum based on the experiences of New Zealand schools after the earthquake there. Before lockdown, this had resulted in improved attendance and dramatic recoveries in reading and writing abilities of pupils whose learning had been affected during the first lockdown. Best practice is out there, lead by some truly inspiring teachers— the strategic question that must be answered is how can this best practice be spread and incentivised, and monitored to encourage all teachers to engage in these forms of learning.

Then there is the thorny question of educational outcomes. I’m cautious about re-inventing the wheel at a time when stability and certainty is needed. Pupils deserve exam results to show for all their hard work, and existing systems that have held their own as a standard over time should not be thrown out for the sake of change. But we do need to address the issue of admissions to university, and how results and assessment are used to deliver this.

Post Qualification Admissions have been proposed as a way forward, yet with the qualifications themselves under review, we need greater long-term certainty of how we can achieve an equitable admissions system that encourages disadvantaged pupils to reach their potential. The fact that just nine per cent of boys from the north east reach university remains one of the starkest failures of our education system: universities have a critical role too in helping to address some of these divides that are likely only to be compounded as a result of Covid.

Reforms to post-18 education to ensure lifelong learning and flexible qualification structures have taken on a fresh urgency in light of the pandemic, especially with the likely need for retraining and reskilling of a large number of people seeking new forms of employment. For them, and indeed the country, education will be a vital ladder, an escape route, out of their present circumstances.

Ultimately, a long-term education recovery plan must start not from what is convenient for existing systems and vested interests of the organisations that operate in this space. To do this would mean that those with the loudest voices, and greatest lobbying efforts, win out. What is needed instead is an approach that defines the “points of contact” at every stage of a child’s educational journey — and defining how these have been adversely affected by the pandemic, and what can be done to resolve this.

Defining and delivering a long-term plan, with the investment needed to achieve this, will be hard work: easier, more tactical approaches, may seem more attractive. Yet to achieve an effective recovery, the longer term, strategic planning is now essential. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, how we have the opportunity to make choices, based either on fast, intuitive thinking, or slow, rational thinking, yet “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution”.

With all the immediate talk of laptop provision as the instant solution to current learning problems, we must not forget that now is also the time to prepare all pupils for their educational recovery, encompassed in a long-term strategic approach. It is a choice that we must take, and think rationally about how we deal with what will become one of the greatest fall-outs from the pandemic.