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Education briefing - Covid-19-Related Responses to Student Service Delivery - Consumerism Versus Collegiality

  • United Kingdom
  • Coronavirus
  • Education - Coronavirus

28-05-2020

Changes to academic and pastoral services

Two big questions for students and institutions alike are how courses will be delivered next academic year and what students can expect from their student experience.

The Minister of State for Universities, Michele Donelan, has made clear that students ordinarily should not expect any fee refund if they are receiving adequate online learning and support. And that may be broadly correct where an institution’s student contract permits it to make changes to the academic and pastoral services it has promised to deliver and the changes being made are fair and lawful. But where the services being sold are simply not the same as those advertised or promised in the student contract, institutions risk challenge from students for breach of contract and consumer law and for the loss of enjoyment of the student experience.

The bigger the differences between what an institution has promised and what it delivers (in terms of tangible, academic deliverables like lectures, tutorials and getting a degree certificate, and in respect of more amorphous, personal development deliverables such as making friendships and professional contacts and developing as a global 21 century citizen), the greater potential for argument that students are not getting what they contracted for or value for money. The bottom line is that most students did not contract for on-line or even blended courses. If they had wanted to do a course online they would have gone elsewhere and done it cheaper. So institutions need to work hard at making up the differences, which will mitigate the risk of challenge and reputational damage. And the bigger the differences the harder they will need to work.

Uncertainty and planning

Added to this is the constant of uncertainty as to what the immediate and medium term futures hold - and what exactly institutions should be planning for. Should planning be geared towards an eventual return to traditional face-to-face teaching, albeit with on-line interludes in the event of resurgence of the virus? Or should planning be for the start of a new era of blended delivery for an HE sector which may, perhaps, have become a little over-reliant on traditional pedagogical methods?

Meaningful dialogue with students

Putting the current inherent uncertainty aside, maintaining a meaningful dialogue with students (prospective and current) will help institutions to manage student expectations and mitigate challenge for breach of contract and consumer law and for reputational damage. It will also assist students to manage their own arrangements such as deciding whether or not to enter into tenancies for the forthcoming academic year once their institutions have indicated whether face-to-face teaching will resume or continue on-line. In the course of this dialogue students should recognise that uncertainty is likely to remain, for the next few months at least, and that academic and pastoral services will be subject to ongoing review and may undergo further change. But institutions will need to remember that students are entitled under consumer law to a reasonable level of information to assist them to make informed choices as to whether or not to apply to an institution or accept a course offer, and to make decisions during the life of the student contract. This includes being told what services will be delivered, when and how - and what services may be subject to change, when and how. And in the context of coronavirus, institutions will need to keep this information updated as circumstances change and Government and regulators issue new guidance and regulations.

Consumerism versus collegiality

But does this one-way flow of information, whilst legally compliant, risk treating students solely as consumers rather than as colleagues in a collegiate community with valuable contributions to make to the reshaping of delivery models for a more modern age of higher education? There may be very real opportunities to be grasped here for those institutions which regard their students as participants in a scholarly partnership and which engage them in discussion of how traditional, often didactic, teaching and learning methods can be updated and made more accessible and which emphasise transferable skills to enhance students’ subsequent transitions and employability. Now may be the time for institutions to invite and listen to students’ views on conventional service delivery models and how they might be improved and updated.

To take a few examples:

Might a move solely to on-line lectures be welcomed by students as a positive and possibly overdue change which will assist them to learn at their own pace in more conducive surroundings and at more convenient times, rather than being talked at for an hour in a crowded room and (for some at least perhaps) at an inconsiderately early time in the morning?

Might the refocussing of the student experience include greater emphasis on an institution’s career services and links to industry and sectors to help mitigate the longer term economic detriment on students of Covid-19?

And is now a good time for institutions to equality impact assess the design, content, delivery modes and assessment of courses to ensure they are truly inclusive for all students including those from underrepresented groups?

Support for students

Of course institutions engaging in online activities will need to provide students with the means themselves to engage. This will include providing students with access to appropriate IT support. And it will also mean provision of alternative support for those students who do not have access at home to a computer, smart phone or the internet or to a quiet or safe place to study.

Institutions should also remember to engage students on an individual level to discuss both their academic and personal requirements. Students’ physical and mental health conditions may need support, and institutions should also assume that there is likely to be an enhanced level of anxiety generally amongst the student body at this time. In response, institutions should consider offering a wide range of therapeutic support services (such as counselling, mindfulness, yoga, relaxation and group therapy) and prepare a range of online and safe-distance support groups and activities.

Opportunities

Taking this opportunity proactively and positively to review and remodel institutional service delivery won’t lessen the sting of the virus completely for students, and many (in particular freshers and final year students) may feel that they have missed out on a rite of passage of university life. But amid the continued planning and re-planning in response to Covid-19, there may be opportunities for institutions to seize from the jaws of the current crisis which secure long-term benefits for students and institutions alike. And the current situation may also provide a chance for institutions to reflect on their civic roles and responsibilities in these uncertain times and for the future.

This article was written in conjunction with Dr Ruth Caleb MBE, Higher Education Mental Health and Wellbeing Consultant, Academic Adviser, Doctoral Programmes Metanoia Institute/Middlesex University.

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