Student Protection Plans: Neither plans nor protection

Student Protection Plans (SPPs) are the creation of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and require universities to clarify their arrangements for students to complete their studies should the institution, course or campus close. But are these plans reliable?  How will universities be held to account if it becomes necessary to activate them? And whose interests are most likely to be served by the terms of the SPPs? Are there some unforeseen moral hazards which attach to their implementation?  

These questions have taken on additional urgency this week when we have seen the release of distressing news for anyone who cares about UK universities and the talented staff and students who work within them. At least 8 universities are considering course closures, redundancies , or, as the University of Reading puts it 
‘refreshing their vision’. So far, the following universities have made known their financial difficulties in recent days: Cardiff University, Birkbeck, University of London, University of Gloucestershire, Bangor University, University of Reading, Bath Spa University, SOAS Library and Queen Margaret University.

There have been two informative blog pieces recently which discuss SPPs. Gordon McKenzie compares how arrangements for insolvency are handled in the Further Education sector.  Meanwhile, Jim Dickinson has helpfully provided species identification and taxonomy – not an easy task since only 65 out of 203 SPPs were traceable.  

SPPs vary in size and detail with The University of Leeds discharging its obligation in just two pages, while the University of Birmingham’s plan runs to a very detailed 21 pages.

The Office for Students (OfS) and Sam Gyimah, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, have both signalled in the starkest terms their intention not to engage in bailouts or, as Hefce did, to facilitate amalgamation of institutions.  

This change of policy is framed as a necessary encounter with the discipline of the market, and fits entirely with the presumptions of the 2016 White Paper, Success as a Knowledge Economy, that success will be ensured by the application of competition and choice. According to this logic, “we must accept that there may be some providers who do not rise to the challenge, and who therefore need or choose to close some or all of their courses, or to exit the market completely. The possibility of exit is a natural part of a healthy, competitive, well-functioning market and the Government will not, as a matter of policy, seek to prevent this from happening. The Government should not be in the business of rescuing failing institutions” [Executive Summary para 17]. 

And so universities must now assess their own financial risk and disclose that in an accessible statement as a condition of OfS registration.  

It only takes the slightest acquaintance with Erving Goffman’s theory of face to understand that universities, famously concerned with reputation above other considerations, will be eager to contradict any suggestion of financial vulnerability. In fact, nearly all of them are at pains to lay out their credentials for financial and academic sustainability.                              

This leads to moral hazard #1– Denial. Most universities claim to be at very low risk of institutional closure.  Leeds dismisses this prospect with “The likelihood that the University will be unable to operate is negligible”. Generally, the SPPs refer to the healthy income and bank surplus ( Birmingham), and strong market position (read league tables), so “the University is, therefore, able to absorb market shocks” ( Birmingham). More worrying is that many go on to rebuff the idea that courses, departments or schools could close, claiming these are all mature and well-established (Leeds). Newcastle University evaluates the possibility of closure of a whole programme because of loss of market viability or insufficient enrollments thus: 

We consider this risk to be low, overall, because of our confidence in our market position and popularity as a destination. 

The University of Liverpool is one institution to make a rare disclosure that it withdrew 37 programmes  from 2014-15 to the present academic year, and all continuing students were able to complete their courses.   

Despite the denials of vulnerability,  universities are required to give details of actions they would initiate if that ‘negligible’ risk should be ‘crystallised’, in the OfS jargon. A number of universities refer to the practice of ‘teaching out’ a course, which means continuing to teach those students already enrolled, while halting recruitment. This is a well-established practice in the sector. Other SPPs promise to support students in finding another provider. Sometimes that means presuming upon a multilateral agreement whose ratification seems unassured. The University of Birmingham undertakes to: 

Facilitate transfer or direct-entry to another provider: We would look to work with partner providers across the UK, including our fellow Russell Group members and our strategic partners such as the University of Nottingham, to accommodate you by transfer or direct entry – subject to their entry requirements.  

The strategic partnership is confirmed in Nottingham’s SPP, if not acknowledged in those of other Russell Group members. However, it raises a question:  is this in the best interests of students to privilege provider status over compatibility of course offerings? What happens if your course is not available at the partner institution? For example, The BA (Hons) in Gemmology and Jewellery Studies is unique to Birmingham City University which states proudly that its School of Jewellery has been in operation since 1890. The agreements, then, provide no guarantees that a student will be able to complete the course they first enroll on, and one wonders how a naïve university applicant is meant to find reassurance in the SPP.  

Also, even where transfer agreements are in place, how would another university suddenly accommodate a large number of supernumerary students? The answer to that lies in an increase in ‘flexibility’ of resourcing in the form of precarious and ‘atypical’ staffing arrangements. Nottingham Trent University’s SPP has this to say:

 The University maintains a flexible pool of adjunct and sessional staff to ensure continuity of supply of both general and specialist teaching.” 

At the University of Wolverhampton,

The University makes use of visiting lecturers to bring in expertise as and when required to ensure core course elements can be delivered.

This reveals moral hazard #2 whereby there is an incentive for employers to conflate protection of student interests in the case of ‘market exit’ with the kind of staffing economies they might like to avail themselves of. The use of contingent staff on insecure contracts has been increasing over the last decade and now atypical staff account for a third of posts in the UK (HESA stats: Staff by HE provider, academic contract marker and mode of employment 2016/17). It appears their use may now be extended to cover core teaching in universities. Given that closure of a teaching facility, discontinuation of a course or loss of Tier 4 licence (international students) are included in the risk analysis along with ‘market exit,’ this reference to a ‘flexible pool’ of casualized staff may prefigure a permanent change in the career structure for an even larger number of academics.  

It should be apparent that these policies are far from being insurance policies for students. Consider moral hazard # 3 – an absence of accountability, identified by Jim Dickinson, who asks, who does the student wave their SPP at if the eventualities are ‘crystallised’? The institution in receivership? The OfS?  The Minister for Universities and Science? The Office of the Independent Adjudicator? – but even they accept they have no regulatory powers over providers and cannot issue fines. What do you do if your recently conferred degree from X university is rendered worthless?  

The final moral hazard belongs to the OfS which, according to Dennis Farrington  “has no statutory authority to guarantee sustainability in any institution” and he raises the prospect of there being ‘disposable universities.’ The consequences of maintaining a stance of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ extend beyond curbing the autonomy of UK universities. The SPPs offer a Trojan horse for greater casualization of the sector and an excuse to devastate a university unpopular, for any reason, with ministers. In either scenario, the interests of students are not served when they cannot rely on an institution enduring for the length of their degree course.  

It is the discourse of HERA legislation that has allowed us for the first time to contemplate the closure of a university for reasons of financial embarrassment unrelated to academic performance. Aside from financial and wider economic issues, there are very good political reasons to proceed cautiously with threats of ‘market exit’.  December 3rd saw Central European University (CEU), one of Europe’s best universities, forced to take the decision to leave Budapest. The Hungarian government has been accused of being the first to actively seek the removal of a university since the German Third Reich.   There has been no response to this from the UK government and none from university leaders who notoriously fail to see the benefit of collective resistance. I hope it will quickly dawn on Chris Skidmore, the next minister for universities, that he would not wish the UK to join this ignominious club. At the moment, that might be the best assurance that the academic community could wish for.  

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