Industrial action and professional courses

The Sunday Times leader yesterday continued recent press coverage of universities with a comment piece on the industrial action currently taking place, which included a suggestion that students on courses accredited by professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) might complete courses without having studied all the relevant content. This, it was suggested, could lead to public concern about professional standards. The relevant extract is as follows:

“The University and College Union (UCU), which is leading the strikes, has raised the stakes, writing to the bodies that regulate the legal, engineering, medical and other professions to point out that students may not be properly trained because of the lectures they will have missed as a result of the strikes. “It is unlikely the public want doctors or lawyers cutting bits of their courses” said Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary.”

There are in reality a whole host of reasons why this is not going to happen:

1. Academic standards are vital to the reputation of UKHE as a whole, and to that of individual institutions. Our system would not have its global reputation without absolute confidence in its standards. Institutions have fought hard to preserve their autonomy over standards and, like any organisation that wants the right to continue to perform its functions long term, are vigilant about the need to safeguard public confidence in their “product”. They are thus extremely and inherently unlikely to jeopardise these things through the kind of approach the extract from the Sunday Times suggests.

2. Such courses are subject to strict standards imposed by the PSRB in question, designed to protect the public and preserve confidence in the accredited area. The scope for effecting changes to courses within the scope of accreditation is usually very tightly constrained. Institutions are obliged to comply with these requirements or risk loss of accreditation, a further powerful disincentive to compromising standards for short term expediency.

3. Students on these courses typically need to demonstrate competence in a range of areas and compliance with a professional code of conduct before being awarded their degrees. Qualified members of staff need to sign off on these competences and professional conduct requirements, exam boards need to be consulted and external examiners satisfied. There are thus many checks and balances built into the process.

4. There are clear routes of scrutiny for institutions’ conduct in this area, through the PSRBs, through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and through HEFCE’s unsatisfactory quality scheme/QAA’s concerns scheme. To adopt the approach suggested in the article, institutions would have to somehow bypass all this oversight.

For these reasons, the suggestion reported in the Sunday Times, in my opinion, has no merit, risks undermining trust and confidence in the system as a whole, and, indirectly, creates unnecessary doubt and suspicion about qualifications awarded to students. There has been much comment in the press about protecting students’ interests and whether they should be entitled to compensation in the context of the industrial action. It is therefore extremely disappointing to see the same press reporting such highly speculative, damaging scenarios. There is no route obvious to me by which students could bring claims for any damage to perceptions about the quality of their degrees against the press, but they would be within their rights to feel highly aggrieved by what has been reported as summarised above.

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