Good news for the student rights let out of a (mixed) bag

Originally published on wonkhe.com

Judging by my Twitter feed, it’s probably not a good day to celebrate Jo Johnson’s speech at Reform. Words like “Neoliberal”, “Marketisation” and “Financialisation” pepper the 140 word critiques, and whilst I always advise student officers to locate proposals within wider ideologies, I also always advise a level of pragmatism. My own measure of an HE minister’s pronouncements is always “how much has it wound up the HE sector”, and on this basis it could well be that students have good reason to be cheerful.

The announcement that will doubtless generate the most ire across HE is that a metric on teaching intensity is to be piloted. Survey after survey of students reveals concerns about contact hours, with HEPI’s expectations report last month most poignant- and ministers have been trying to crack the resultant nut for years to no avail- hounded off by a chorus of yebbuts across HE that always prove that their way of teaching won’t fit the metric. So the pilot proposal– a clever mixture of a hard formula on hours and class sizes, coupled with a softer metric on student survey data about “getting what I need”, is exciting. It’s still nowhere on looking at actual quality (or indeed any qualifications held by an actual teacher), but for students who think we ought to at least have a crack at measuring the tuition you get for your tuition fee, it’s great news.

And then there’s promises. I think I was probably a junior HE wonk before I even applied to University- and I remember vividly the early 90s when John Major’s government (also with a precarious majority and riven by European splits) launched its Citizen’s Charter initiative. The HE bit promised that students would get “clear, accurate and enforceable” information about “courses, quality, accommodation and facilities”- but the sector’s unending ability to water down promises to students into vague pleasantries ensued as normal.

Similarly Labour had a try back in the late noughties, with its own “Student Charters” initiative gently advising HEIs to set out respective expectations for students and Universities. Most HEIs duly developed one- but as with the Tories’ try in the 90s, ended up getting away with watering them down into something so vague as to be utterly unenforceable by a ripped off student.

All of which makes today’s announcement on potential mandatory contract content so tantalising. I’ve written before about the failure in a tuition “fee” to define the product that is being supplied- and so the Minister’s suggestion that contracts should include detail on “resources, contact, assessment, support and other important aspects” should be a godsend to those students that feel that glittery open days and fancy brochures sold them a pup.

Of course, setting out the expectations and standards is one thing- but enforcing them is another. Even with OIA’s efforts and the CMA’s intervention, too few students know their rights and for those that do, too many never get near proper redress. Students in traditional HE have their Students’ Union that may or may not be funded to help- but those in the emergent private sector without that tradition are left dangerously exposed. Whatever OfS does on contract content, it would do well to consider how to strengthen the helping hand that Davids will need when taking on their HEI Goliaths.

There were other nuggets. Employment outcomes appearing in TEF is helpful, but LEO will only appear in Year Three of institutional level TEF (and so much later at subject level), and given the lag on institutional change showing up in LEO data and its pointlessness at anything other than aggregate subject level, it will take until my seven year old daughter applies to Uni for this to make a difference.

And cracking on with a proper pilot of Subject Level TEF- across 35 subject groups- is also good news for those of us that think institutional averages hide pockets of poor provision. That it’s to be a “closed, developmental” pilot is strange- but it’s certainly one in the eye for the VCs who thought they could kick it all into the sector’s long grass.

It wasn’t all good news. It shows quite the brass neck to get a morning’s press out of “VCs to face pay curbs”, only to announce gentle guidelines to remuneration committees instead- all whilst spending the other half of the speech accusing Labour of “bait and switch”. There’s really no excuse for not putting staff and students onto those bodies, and for the new Public Interest Governance Principles in the HE Act to require that deliberations of these bodies (and the bulk of Governing Body business in general) are made public.

Given the focus on “Value for Money”, to not have even started to think about an answer to the growing problem of the spiralling cost of student accommodation is extraordinary. DfE is still sitting on unreleased Student Income and Expenditure research from 2014/15, and so the least Jo could do is publish that work, hang out for a bit around Sajid Javid’s office, and put some heads together to address the reality that increasing chunks of “HE Money” is really going into the hands of private developers and buy-to-let landlords.

To talk about VFM from fees whilst claiming credit for improved access stats- without pointing out that the bulk of funding for all of that comes from a third of students’ additional fee income- is about as disingenuous as it gets. We urgently need to be honest with students and the public about where the money is coming from that delivers these improvements, lest hasty reform sweeps it and the progress made away on a sea of individualised financialisation.

And it remains the case that the power levers to strengthen a students’ hand remain curiously individualised. OfS can design all the national metrics it likes, but speeding up timetable release for students with kids, increasing social learning space as a Uni expands or securing appropriate sports facilities for Disabled Students won’t come from TEF metrics. It’s well funded and supported student representatives leaning on institutional actors that can make the difference on a multitude of issues, and it would helpful if Jo Johnson and OfS started to recognise rather than ignore this reality.

But as I said above, I like to take my student rights wherever I can find them. Broadband providers rightly get hammered when their “average” speed claims are hampered in your house by poor contention rates on your street- yet the sector’s willingness to plaster “TEF Gold” stickers (and associated student experience boasts) over their Open Days goes unchecked. Subject Level TEF and clearer contracts will help both choosers and HE users get what they’re being sold, and improve practice at something closer to students’ experience in a large HEI.

It’s true to say that it’s not clear that Jo Johnson understands the real politics of the fee system- falling into the same trap as Willets and Cable in believing that 6% interest rates and large numbers never paying off will ever be seen as technically progressive features rather than crises. It’s also likely that the sector will now go into overdrive to find ways to dilute the intentions espoused in the speech today. But history tells us that even if Labour wins and restores “Free Education” (for home undergraduates), once you start measuring what students care about, and once enforceable promises are made to students, you can never put the rights cat back in the bag. And that’s why, perhaps on my own and in a personal capacity, I’ll be having a little celebration tonight.

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