How UK Higher Education Regulators Should Respond to COVID-19

29 05 2020

I’m sharing some ideas about how universities and, crucially, the university regulator, the Office for Students, should respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

Universities up and down the country are now furiously planning for next year. Many universities are acting on the logical assumption that students will want to minimize the amount of travel they do, since each additional mile of public transport increases one’s risk of contracting the virus. An eighteen-year-old student from Manchester who, in previous years, would have wanted to go on a grand adventure by studying in London may now, because of the virus, see if they can stay with their parents and go to a university in Manchester. Similarly, the student from London who was planning on escaping the parental nest by studying the University of Manchester may not be investigating whether they can get a place on an equivalent course at a university closer to home. I know from talking to young people that some students are now reconsidering the decisions about where to study they made before the virus spread to the UK.

Parents and students want to minimise travel, as do the train companies. The government should probably encourage students to stay close at home whenever possible. Admittedly some universities offer highly specialised courses but most do not. Some universities, particularly those in towns such as St Andrews that are massive net importers of students from other parts of the country, would probably lose if more students became what Americans call commuter students (live with their parents) but the public health benefits of encouraging students to stay local could be substantial. In any event, many students are now probably unwilling to pay for the expense of living away from their parents because social distancing regulations (e.g., the closure of nightclubs) mean that part of the classic student experience will be unavailable to this year’s crop of undergraduates.

To make it easier for undergraduates to study while living at home with their parents, I would encourage the regulator to do two things:

  1. Strongly encourage UCAS, the central admission service, and universities to make it easier for incoming students who have been accepted onto a course at one university to now switch to a local university.
  2. Force British universities to make it easier for students who are half-way through their degrees to transfer credits between universities. Credit transfer is common in other national university systems, particularly the US and Australia, where students will do a year of study for a degree (e.g., BA in Psychology) at one institution and then transfer the credits to another university. Students transfer between universities all of the time for a variety of personal and financial reasons and since the content of degree courses is, in many cases, basically the same, universities in the US habitually accept transfer credits, particularly when the credit relate to generic modules (introduction to calculus) that were offered a university with equivalent prestige. American students who do well in their first year courses sometimes trade up to better universities, for instance by transferring credits from a community college to a flagship state university. The American/Australian system of allowing for the transfer credit increases the competitive pressure on universities to provide a good experience to undergraduates: if you treat your first-year students poorly, they may transfer their credits to a nicer universities. Nothing wrong with healthy competition. British universities don’t really have a culture of transfer credits, which sadly locks students into whichever university they selected when they were 18. (Imagine being forced to sign four-year contracts with mobile phone providers with no break clause). Not allowing transfer credits is a clearly anti-competitive practice, especially since British university degrees are much more curriculum homogeneous than are American ones.   Now is the time for the Office for Students to force all British universities to accept transfer credits. Doing so will help to reduce student travel around the country during the pandemic and would have the long-term benefit of marking the market for undergraduate education more competitive.
  3. In view of the impending Hard Brexit, the government should also set aside some funds to help train the Class of 2020 in customs paperwork. By supporting students to get the requisite qualifications, the government would  be killing two birds with one stone. One of the disappointing things about the government’s announcement of its aid package for higher education providers on 4th May was that the government have not allocated funds to degree providers to help them to support students this summer, when the unemployment rate is going to be astronomical. I was surprised by that omission because of a number of former Universities ministers (Johnson, Willets, and Skidmore) said in late April that the government and universities need to take urgent action to prevent what economists call scarring. Age cohorts who graduate during recessions have lower lifetime earnings than do people who are a few years older or younger. MPs are aware of the research on the Class of 1981, which shows that British university graduates who had the misfortune of being born in 1958 were much likely to be in menial jobs in the early 2000s than were other graduates. A number of MPs and peers have, in recent weeks, spoken of universities providing free additional training in skills like Python programming over the course of the summer to students who were due to graduate. I’ve been acutely aware of the reality of scarring and have been thinking about what universities could do to help prevent a repeat of what happened to the Class of 1981. Now that we’ve learnt the lessons of history, we aren’t doomed to repeat it. As we all know, Brexit transition period will end in December, at which point goods entering the UK from the EU will require the same paperwork as goods arriving from the wider world. The government recently confirmed that goods entering Great Britain from both parts of Ireland would also require more paperwork. These changes creates employment opportunities for people who are certified as qualified in dealing with the relevant paperwork. The Road Haulage Association estimates that over 200 million extra forms will have to be completed each year because of Hard Brexit. Over the years, certificates in customs procedures have been created by different bodies, including the Institute of Export (IoE), which is based in Peterborough, and the British Chambers of Commerce. These qualifications include the Certificate in Customs Practice and Procedure and the Diploma in Advanced Customs Compliance. In normal times, people typically got these qualifications by attending course held at weekends.  The government have identified a pressing need for more people with these qualifications and have set money aside to cover the costs of getting these qualifications, which you can now get online. (Actually, due to the lockdown you can only get the qualifications online!).  Universities should be encouraged to pay for students who are about to graduate to acquire this highly marketable qualification that could supplement the earning power of their degree. 

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