HEFCE’s new quality system gives students a role but robs them of power

Originally published on wonkhe

Since the introduction of tuition fees, plenty of people have been trying to resist the notion that paying will result in a change of relationship between students and universities. I’ve always been wary of the anti “students-as-consumers” crowd, because, for me, they seem to assume that all students have levels of confidence and cultural capital that turn them into partners, and forget that students are taking bigger risks for smaller rewards, burdening themselves personally in the process.

That’s not to say that signing a loan agreement means you are entitled to a degree, but it should mean entitlements, rights and actual things in exchange for the money. It should also mean that we need to make efforts to make students aware of those rights and give them clear mechanisms for securing them. It’s what regulation should be for.

Take recent changes to student nurse support. One of my stand out memories of the 1997 General Election week was meeting an exhausted student nurse who had just realised that the myth of supernumerary status was just that. Her hunch that rocking the boat about it would jeopardise her career was both vivid and alien to me the mouthy media studies student, used to writing analyses about EastEnders for grades.

I was reminded of the encounter this week when a colleague remarked how preposterous it would be if nursing students were still treated like that when, in a few short months, they will find themselves paying for the privilege of that experience. It’s bad enough that their salary levels probably mean that the coming funding changes are really just a nursing pay cut by stealth; worse that the level of that pay cut can be determined on a whim by the Government fiddling with the Ts and Cs in a way that no other lender would get away with.

But for me, the crucial issue is that it signals a likely change in relationship between student and institution. Matron’s “rite of passage” of pretend supernumerary status has one power dynamic if you’re being paid to be there, quite another if it’s the other way around.

It’s against that backdrop of power dynamics that I find HEFCE’s revised arrangements for quality in HE so profoundly disappointing. They’re heralded as the “refocusing of regulation around the student interest” but include all the usual mistakes that people make when they’re trying to give people a role without giving them any real power with which to secure those interests.

The first issue is the apparent disappearance of the Quality Code. At various points, HEFCE is pleased to confirm that students will retain a role in quality, but merely putting students in a room without a set of standards for them to compare provision against is tokenism pure and simple.

We’ve all been in a meeting where a student that doesn’t really know what students ought to be entitled to either overcooks an assertion – like demanding a fiver back when a lecturer’s late, or undercooks it – like not realising that the complete absence of a teacher for a whole term ought to be something that can be raised.

The new quality assessment proposals’ assertion that only the “expectations” statements of the old code will matter, and only then for new entrant providers, robs students of real reference points and reduces them to mealy mouthpieces for NSS results regurgitation.

The second issue is the assertion that the old “one size fits all” approach has to go. “Many respondents… believed that… detailed elements prompted an unhelpfully burdensome and formulaic approach to review” says the document, which is probably true – but in doing so asserts a form of institutional autonomy that starts to look highly problematic.

I’ll bet every HEI (and especially every new entrant) can sign up to expectations like “taking deliberate steps to engage all students, individually and collectively, as partners in the assurance and enhancement of their educational experience”. But dropping the indicators suggests that in this version of institutional autonomy, HEFCE believes that can be done without (for example) “the effective representation of the collective student voice at all organisational levels”.

Ergo private HE gets away without funding and supporting independent student advocacy, and in the traditional sector, students can no longer use the code to argue their way onto a committee that matters.

The complete lack of understanding of how student representation works and why it matters is both astounding and disappointing. Students don’t get involved to “assure” HE, they get involved to make it better, and anyone familiar with the apathy staircase will know that step three – where a student becomes conscious of their own rights through context – is the thing that really makes them understand the difference between what they have now and what they should have. Closing that gap is only delivered through external benchmarks, regulators and codes, and powerful organisational support.

Leaving private HE without real students’ unions, traditional universities with the ability to ignore the indicators and QAA chopped up or ditched robs the army of student reps in meetings of the tools, confidence and external scrutiny they’ll need for their participation to be meaningful.

There are other problems too. Pockets of poor provision in otherwise good institutions can continue to go unchecked. The proposals to strengthen the external examiner system barely scratch the surface of what’s morally required to enable the sector to continue to deny appeals on the basis of academic judgment. And the proposals’ cross-referencing of Competition and Markets Authority guidance on consumer law might interrogate the postgraduate and professional training gaps in the undergraduate-focussed work that the CMA has thus far released (for those nursing students if no-one else).

But overall, as usual, my issue is that the proposals do little to tip the balance and give students more power. In fact, in designing a system that doesn’t look much less burdensome than the last (but transferring more of the cost of that burden to HEIs), HEFCE has done an extraordinary job of designing a system that looks barely aligned to Government priorities, doesn’t deliver the student interest in the new or old bits of the sector and will actually take money out of teaching and learning, threatening the UK’s reputation for quality HE in the process.

What a time to be alive.

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