14 May 2021

Regulating quality in unprecedented times

How to regulate in a time of Covid? It has been challenging, both for HEFCW staff, in terms of regulating remotely, and for institutions, in continuing to deliver a high quality student experience.  

What have we done? We have carried out four surveys of higher education institutions to assure ourselves that they are taking appropriate action regarding the student experience and quality in the current circumstances. We have considered the outcomes of these with internal and external committees, who concluded that institutions were responding appropriately.

We have also allocated £50 million to support students in dealing with the impact of the pandemic, including funding for digital poverty, provision of additional support for students in light of the pandemic, and student hardship. 

What else have we done? We have published a lot of guidance for providers. This has covered areas such as: regulation; reporting; quality; student expectations; equality, diversity and inclusion; and our approach to well-being and health, including funding to support implementation plans. We have also reminded institutions of their responsibilities in line with the Competition and Markets Authority consumer law advice for providers and students.

Catching up. Separately, we met with the pro vice-chancellors for learning and teaching, or their equivalents, for all regulated institutions between October and December 2020 to enable us to monitor student experience and support, as well as the institutional responses to the pandemic. We asked them to confirm that staff have had appropriate training to deliver provision online, and that students have been supported to learn in this way.

We have also had regular meetings with NUS Wales and with students’ unions to find out what issues are arising from the student perspective. This includes the impact of the £50 million that we allocated to support students and address student hardship, and whether it is meeting the needs of students on the ground. We will continue to do this through the remainder of the academic year, in order to ensure that we monitor the pandemic’s impact on students throughout their studies. 

We also meet regularly with the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, Health Education and Improvement Wales, and Estyn to consider issues of joint interest that might impact on the quality of the student experience. 

Checking it all adds up. We have a Quality Assessment Committee, which has played a key role in advising us on the implications of the pandemic for quality and the student experience. This advice has informed our work, including: ensuring that higher education institutions are aware of work sharing good practice; emphasising student needs, including a specific focus on students who have practical provision or work placements; and evaluating the impact on employability.

Our Student Opportunity and Achievement Committee has provided advice on the student experience and the impact of the pandemic, particularly on well-being, the need for institutional support for staff and students, and the role of student partnership in decision making and governance, in terms of responses to the pandemic. We also have a number of internal groups, which consider institutional responses, data and developments, to ensure that we understand the actions institutions are taking. 

How do we find out about the student perspective? We have been working closely with the other UK funders and regulators on the National Student Survey (NSS). This included checking the robustness of the 2020 results – detailed testing concluded that the results were broadly comparable to previous years, indicating that, at the time of completing the survey (January – April 2020), the student experience had not been greatly impacted by the pandemic.

We agreed that the 2021 NSS should continue as usual, given the importance of monitoring the student experience, and will ensure that the results are thoroughly checked before publication to ensure they are reliable and easily understood by users. The survey is also asking a series of questions specific to the pandemic, to see what lessons can be learned, should further lockdowns be needed. Notwithstanding the efforts made by institutions to secure a good experience for students during the pandemic, it would be surprising not to see some of the challenges being reflected in the NSS results this year. 

We have also been assured by institutions that they too are carrying out regular surveys of their students to evaluate how they can enhance the student experience, both in year and in coming years. 

Our catch ups with NUS Wales and students’ unions also help us to understand issues from the student perspective. 

What about complaints? Under these circumstances, not everything will go according to plan, despite the strenuous efforts of university staff. When things go wrong, everyone involved will want to sort the issues as quickly as possible. Students who are experiencing difficulties will seek support from their institution in the first instance. If they are dissatisfied about a certain action or lack of action taken, they are able to raise a formal complaint with the institution.

Once the institutional process has completed, and if they disagree with the outcomes, students can raise a complaint with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). This will provide independent assessment of the issues, and a judgement about whether or not the institution has followed its own procedures correctly. If students think that there is a systemic problem, they can raise this through HEFCW’s own complaints’ procedures. We are liaising with the OIA to ensure that we are made aware of any patterns of complaints that may arise, particularly relating to the impact of the pandemic on the student experience.

The recently published OIA annual report noted an increase of complaints in 2020, although smaller than the increase in 2019. However, they believe the pandemic has also had an effect on complaints students haven’t brought to the OIA, in particular in relation to academic appeals. Wales’s ‘share’ of complaints has decreased over the past two years, both in terms of percentage and number, and now stands at 4% of the total received. 

And finally… We have funded collaborative well-being projects, recognising that, even before the pandemic hit, student mental health was a concern in institutions. We also funded the bilingual Student Space website along with the Office for Students (OfS) to provide web-based, phone, text and face-to-face support for students in Wales and in England.

We have run the higher education investment and recovery (HEIR) fund, using Welsh Government funding for universities to maintain vital teaching capacity in the context of the financial challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The fund has also supported major collaborative programmes that will support the higher education sector’s role in economic recovery. These include a programme to support blended learning in Welsh universities, including through the medium of Welsh. 

Through this range of activities we have assured ourselves that higher education institutions have maintained quality and standards throughout the pandemic. We have amended regulations, such as mitigation regulations, to ensure that institutions take appropriate account of the impact of the pandemic on students – for example if they are isolating and without good broadband access, or if they are ill.

We will continue to evaluate quality and the student experience for the remainder of this academic year, working jointly with NUS Wales, Universities Wales, the Welsh Government, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and others, to address any issues or concerns as they arise.  

Cliona O’Neill, Head of Student Experience