(Not) securing student success?

Originally published on wonkhe.com

On first reading of the thrillingly titled “Securing student success: risk-based regulation for teaching excellence, social mobility and informed choice in higher education”, you’ve got to wonder how DfE officials spent their youth. “The document is aimed at students”, opines the four page guide to navigating the 177 pages; “we are especially interested in the views of students (prospective, current, and former), on whose behalf OfS will regulate, and providers, who will be subject to its regulation”.

They may well be interested in the student view — but in the unlikely event that any actual student gets through the turgid text, I doubt they’ll find much in there that accords with their own perceptions of value for money, power imbalances and educational improvement.

The dead cat

In headline terms, the freedom of speech focus has been effectively deployed in the press as a dead cat on the table of fees and funding. I’ve written before here about both the history of this moral panic, and the pointlessness of proposals to this end. Of interest to us in the consultation is the actual proposal, and it’s not surprising to learn that there doesn’t really appear to be one.

Presumably mindful that a document like this can’t actually lie, a wedge of text marked “Box D” is forced to reference that it has been the duty of HEIs since 1986 to secure freedom of speech. “Going further” merely ensures that private providers will now have to spend their shareholders’ cash on demonstrating that a visit by Milo Yiannopoulos would pose a public order problem.

It then uses a neat trick- conflating HERA with the ’86 act into a generic “our legislation” frame to rehearse the same old free speech stuff we’ve heard before. The text makes it clear that there’s “no place” for “extremist” views, without really setting out who gets to define “extreme.” Bizarrely, this is reinforced by a quote from Orwell on liberty.

In setting out how OfS will enforce what will be converted from ’86 act to “public interest governance condition”, the document suggests that OfS will use something called “indicative behaviours” to assess compliance. “With regard to free speech”, it suggests, “one behaviour that would indicate compliance would be to have a freedom of speech code of practice… setting out the procedures which members, students and employees should follow in relation to meetings or activities, and the conduct which is expected of those individuals”.

That’s good news for both HEIs and SUs- the ’86 act has required a Code of Practice for over thirty years, and almost all SUs have one already — given their responsibilities under charity law, and guidance from NUS and UUK. Of course, none of this will stop an SU declining to invite a racist to an SU meeting if students democratically decide that this is what they want to do.

Reasons to be miserable

From a student perspective, it is entirely possible to be quite miserable about the other provisions in the framework on offer. Take data. “The OfS will work … to coordinate, collect and disseminate information for students to help them make the choices that are right for them, to drive competition around student outcomes, such as graduate employability, and to support and raise the profile of mechanisms that allow student transfer”. Note the obsessive focus on the use of data for student as chooser rather than user of HE- using exit rather than voice as power. Data that might aid a student representative in arguing for better facilities or programme improvements is curiously missing.

Or take contracts. Back in September Jo Johnson appeared to be promising to put content meat on the bones of contracts with students — to include things like facilities and contact hours- but the consultation appears to have watered this down significantly, offering only to ensure providers “have given due regard to relevant guidance as to how to comply with consumer law”. The text rightly recognises that “there is not an equal power balance in relationships between students and providers”, but then offers little to redress the imbalance and no sense of how a student might be supported to enforce these legal rights if let down.

There’s material on “Value for Money” which also doesn’t address student concerns — what is and isn’t included in the fee — and instead addresses Andrew Adonis’ concern about VC pay. There’s a paucity of material on access — rehearsing what we already know about access agreements changing their name and focussing on achievement and progression. And when it comes to the baffling patchwork of regulation that students will need to navigate when they experience an issue, it just says that “getting the right relationship between the CMA, the OIA and the OfS will also be important to ensure that, in the area of consumer law, students understand and are able to exercise their rights”.

You don’t say- although what they don’t say is that without a decent Students’ Union, students in FE and “alternative” providers haven’t got a hope of independent advocacy if something goes wrong.

Washed up

But perhaps the most revealing and dispiriting bit of the consultation is where it attempts to look at the HE market and identify where choosing an undergraduate course is different to buying a washing machine. “There are almost never repeat ‘purchases’ of the same type of higher educational courses by an individual student … many of the primary benefits to the student… are not received immediately; they are spread out over their lifetime…. [this] exposes the market to distortions such as time inconsistency… and temporal discounting”.

This is all true, and it’s why an “Office for Students” ought to be important. It could use Barber’s “Collective Choice and Voice” model to empower current students — giving power to individuals and their representatives to get redress when treated badly, and giving data and access to fuel improvements. It could drive a culture of representation and voice — at individual level right through to ministerial level — in recognition of the clear difference between white goods and degree courses. But while it nails the problems, it falls significantly short of any decent solutions — and couldn’t feel more distant from students’ day to day concerns if it tried.