Online learning should not be used as a ‘cost saving measure,’ universities minister writes

Exclusive: Michelle Donelan gives her view on strikes, online learning and drop-out rates

Many people reading this may already know me as the Minister for Higher and Further Education, but this is a slightly misleading title given the way I view my role.

While I do work very closely with universities and colleges themselves, the vast majority of my time is actually spent supporting, defending and assisting students and prospective students. Basically, ensuring that students get a fair deal.

Over the last two years Covid-19 has caused disruptions to virtually every aspect of student life. Much of my time has rightly been spent championing causes that have helped to bring back some normality to your university experience, but as we begin to recover from Covid-19, it is time that the important issue of transparency for students is made a priority.

Transparency from your university is not something I see as a woolly ideal: for me every student has a right to receive accurate information about their course and their prospects from their university before they make decisions that will help determine their future.

After all, the decision to go to university is a decision that involves committing to a huge investment in your time and resources over a number of years.

So with this in mind, I don’t think it is unreasonable for students to expect that their course delivers on the promises made to them, and leads to a good graduate job.

Students deserve transparency and information from start-to-finish, knowing clearly from the start where a particular course can take them and an honest acknowledgement of the doors that some courses simply won’t open. Yet this is not always the case.

Some unis offer courses with a drop-out rate of over 40 per cent

The disappointing truth is that some universities are not being as upfront or forthcoming with useful information as they could be.

Some universities continue to offer courses with a drop-out rate of over 40 per cent, which is a fact that prospective students looking at that course should know about in advance.

Universities should actively make applicants aware of these outcomes in their prospectuses – it shouldn’t be for students to have to hunt through the small-print to find this sort of basic information.

Students deserve better – they deserve a fair deal

Other courses have very poor graduate outcomes, where for example only one third of students who begin the course will go on to get a graduate job or continue studying. Just recently, my colleague, Mark Pawsey MP, found that a course in Early Years, Care and Education in his area was advertising “professional progression”, yet in reality the course lacked the accreditation needed to actually work in the early years sector.

I was shocked by this and the impact it had on Mark’s constituent – quite frankly it is not good enough. As the Minister committed to representing students and fighting for your right to make informed choices, these kinds of practices are totally unacceptable and I would go so far as to argue they plainly mislead students. Students deserve better – they deserve a fair deal.

If a university wants to run a particular course then they have the right to do so, but they should not withhold information from students that would help them make a better decision about their course and their prospects.

I have already cracked down on this particular case and several others, but going forward, I will be personally naming and shaming any university which does not offer students the transparency they deserve.

The importance of clear, transparent information from universities goes well beyond courses themselves, though. The ability of disadvantaged students to excel in school and college, and then get into university in part relies on universities being open and honest about how they are going to support people of all backgrounds getting into university.

Unis are too focused on ‘getting in’ and not ‘getting on’

We currently have what are called Access and Participation Plans, which ask universities to set out their plan for improving access and success for students from underrepresented groups.

But despite these plans helping to ensure that more disadvantaged students gained access to university than ever before this year, universities continue to focus too much on the “getting in”aspect and not enough on the “getting on” aspect of these plans.

Real social mobility is not purely about getting students to enrol on courses – it is about ensuring they complete those courses and get into good graduate jobs.

So last week I announced that we are overhauling these plans to make them simpler, to tackle drop-out rates and support disadvantaged students into, through and after university as they go on to higher skilled, higher paid careers.

Online learning should ‘not be used by universities as an opportunity for cost saving or for convenience’

I also want universities to become more transparent about the return to face-to-face learning. During the uncertainty of Covid-19 and before the student vaccine rollout (over 90 per cent of students are now vaccinated), face-to-face learning was rightly put on hold.

However this temporary change in learning must not be used by universities as an opportunity for cost saving or for convenience.

Face-to-face learning is a vital element of almost every course, and while virtual learning is a fantastic innovation, it should only ever be used to complement and enhance your learning experience, not detract from it. I have written to every university in the country to set out my expectation that universities listen to their students.

Universities must be totally transparent with students about the return to face-to-face learning and there are options available to students if they feel that they have not received what they were promised – over half a million pounds has already been refunded by providers as a result of complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education on a wide variety of issues, and greater clarity from universities will help even more students get reimbursements where appropriate. Above all, universities must listen to students when making any changes to the way courses are delivered.

Students deserve good quality, face-to-face teaching

I must also take this opportunity to express how disappointed I am by the decision of some lecturers to go on strike at this time.

Students have been through enough over the last few years and any further disruption caused to their learning is wholly unfair and completely unnecessary. Students deserve good quality, face-to-face teaching from their universities and we need a resolution that delivers this for them as soon as possible.

It’s what the vast majority of teaching staff want and what students rightly expect. Let’s not forget that strike action last time did not resolve the issue – but it did disrupt students’ education. I urge the University and Colleges Union to get round the negotiating table and put students first, because they deserve a fair deal.

Finally, I want to both thank and assure every student reading this. Thank you for your resilience and your determination throughout this pandemic, and you have my assurance that I will continue fighting for your right to all the information so you can make informed choices about your future.

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• Everything you need to know about the upcoming lecturer strikes