15 October 2020

Higher education in a Covid world: getting it right for students


To many of us, June seems a long time ago now. The UK was coming through the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. One way or another, students had completed their studies for the year, and universities had already been turning their thoughts towards the forthcoming academic year and how to provide the best experience for students in a Covid-safe manner.

At the end of June, we issued information for higher education providers in Wales on consumer protection, student expectations and quality. We were clear that students, and potential students, would need access to as much information as possible.

We were also clear that student expectations would evolve over time: providers would need to manage these expectations throughout the year, including through consulting with their students and providing them with regular information. The National Union of Students (NUS) Wales advised that universities should avoid over-promising and under-delivering and should, as far as possible, be clear with students about what they could expect.

Now, moving into autumn, as a second Covid wave advances, the challenge of ensuring a good, stimulating but safe learning experience is apparent for all to see.

Going away to university is also about much more than the academic experience, of course. Enjoying social and life-enhancing experiences normally associated with university life also has to be balanced against the health and well-being of students, their families and the wider community of which they are a part.

We also need to keep in mind that not all students are 18-year-old full-time undergraduates who are ‘away from home’. Students can be part-time, commuting and with care or employment responsibilities. Students’ unions provide important support for all the students they represent.

Getting the balance right between a “normal” university experience, and acting safely, is difficult, especially since the constraints imposed by Covid change almost daily.

We at HEFCW know that universities in Wales have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the student experience is as good as possible – starting with online welcome events, socials and mental health support – while ensuring that students, and staff, are kept safe. This is a dynamic situation and they continue to work hard, and to invest substantial sums of money, to respond to the changing circumstances.

There are, of course, legal contracts in place between higher education providers and students (for example, in relation to university-run accommodation) as well as student charters and regulatory requirements (for example, in relation to quality). But there is also what might be described as a “psychological contract”, or partnership, whereby students discuss their concerns with providers; and providers do all they reasonably can to support their students and to put things right if they go wrong. This also encourages providers to help students – as members of universities – to understand and empathise with the unprecedented challenges providers are dealing with, and vice versa.

Students will have understood that the university experience this year will be different. Coming to university in that knowledge means that students have committed to making the best of the opportunities provided for them in this strange Covid world. A university education is a partnership that requires active engagement and commitment on the part of the student and provider. Gaining a place in higher education is to gain an opportunity; it is not a simple commercial transaction. Institutions have to put proper provision and support in place, of course, and students have a responsibility to make the most of what is available.

That said, things can sometimes go wrong. If the experience provided by a university falls short of what was promised, it is perfectly reasonable for students to raise issues. How they do so is important.

There has been much media energy lately in trying to create a story about poor value for money and possible fee reductions and refunds, often based on a crude monetary calculation about face-to-face contact hours. The climate we are all trying to create in Wales is one of mutual understanding and support. We and the Welsh Government recognise, for example that often students have two homes – one in their university and one more permanent home – and that they will want to move, as adults in a free society, in a Covid-safe way between them. Subject to any local lockdown rules, that seems to be a perfectly reasonable proposition. When things go wrong, we find students to be understanding rather than litigious, provided their legitimate concerns are addressed promptly.

There might be occasions where, despite their efforts, universities get it so wrong that complaints to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), or full or partial refunds, might be appropriate. Mostly, though, students don’t want their money back – they just want the problems sorted and their education to continue satisfactorily. We see benefit in maintaining this position. If students are encouraged to seek refunds, that will simply increase the financial challenges faced by the universities and make it even more difficult to provide a good student experience. That outcome can be best achieved by telling the course team, course reps or their own students’ union as quickly as possible about any problems. If universities know about things going wrong, subject to the constraints of Covid they will be able to solve them.

In addition to our normal quality assurance activities with providers, we will be engaging routinely with the students’ unions in the Welsh universities, as well as with NUS Wales, to keep an eye on how things are going. We will engage with the universities further if we learn of unresolved problems.

In the meantime, we need to step back and acknowledge the immense efforts by students and staff who are doing their utmost to make the 2020/21 work, and how higher education institutions are striving to deliver the best possible service, in unique circumstances, to the class of 2020.

David Blaney

Chief Executive