Mis-sold Msc Computer Science course refunded


Students complained course failed to deliver

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Image by Emily Hewat

By Emily Hewat

A recent report has highlighted that students who were enrolled on the University of York’s  online MSc Computer Science course have received refunds since the course failed expectations. An OIAHE report dated 4th February 2022 has verified that students have been missold the course and has justified the refund for students. Nouse has accessed this report and has used direct evidence taken from it. Nouse has also spoken to a student who wishes to remain anonymous about how the course did not live up to their expectations.

The group complaint was made by 28 students and the complaint was received by the OIA on the 28 April 2021. The course first opened in April 2019 and OIAHE report states that most of the students in the group complaint started the course between April 2019 and November 2019.

A key issue with the course is that it has been over subscribed to which has led to accusations in a Student Group chat room in October that York is “cashing in on their reputation.” (link can be found here)  The courses have an intake every 2 months and initial figures were based on 25 students per intake, so 150 per year. The first intake was 165 students, which exceeds the annual expected intake.

Student numbers have since grown to around 1,500-2,000 on all the four MSc CS courses, with 150-250 students per intake.e contract. Marketing was an issue raised by the group which the OIAHE report summarises as “students had expected a more skills-based focus, whereas the programme was more theory-based. The report understands that the marketing information included: a webpage on the University website, with links to brief descriptions of each module; a Key Information Sheet (it is our understanding that not all students received this) and Programme Specifications, on the University website.

Marketing had overstated the suitability of the programme for students without computer science or STEM backgrounds; and marketing had overstated the flexibility of the delivery of the programme.” The report concluded that “the marketing information was not clear and unambiguous about the balance between theory and practical skills on the programme. In our view this was not good practice, especially since this issue was brought to the University’s attention by an External Assessor prior to the programme’s launch.”

The student on the course that Nouse spoke to said that they felt that by not capping the number of students the University has made “a conscious choice to prioritise income over student experience and even the University’s reputation.”

This oversubscription of students has led to a more pressing problem that there is not enough staff to cover the increase in numbers and resulting in module groups containing 33-39 students as opposed to the 25 that was expected. In its complaint outcome letter, the University said that it was within the Department’s discretion to decide how many students should form a tutor group and that it had decided to increase the number of students in a group to 35. However the OIAHE report felt “it was unreasonable for the University to change this without informing or consulting with the students.” When brought up to the University, a motion was passed at a GSA council requesting the University consider more flexibility in staff contracts to enable them to better support students but little improvement has been made.

The OIAHE report noted that the Programme Specifications state that “a group of a maximum of 25 students will be allocated to one module tutor”. As such, we think that it was reasonable for students on the programme to expect a module tutor to work with a group of a maximum of 25 students.”  The OIAHE refers to an email dated 21 May 2020, which, as well as saying that the department was “extremely busy” and acquiring “more students every couple of months” without additional resource  the Head of Department noted, “We have nothing to do with recruitment - we are not allowed to be involved in recruitment.”

This means that students who need extra support because they do not have a background in Computer Science are left on their own. In a group complaint submitted to the OIAHE shown to Nouse, students suggested that the course was explicitly advertised as “This 100% online Computer Science Masters programme is designed for working professionals and graduates who may not currently have a computer science background and want to launch their career.”

Nouse asked the University for comment and they stated “The OIA acknowledged that the University took steps to address many of the concerns, which included taking on more staff. As the OIA also stated, students in the group achieved credits towards an award or have been awarded a MSc, and we’ve been delighted to see students graduate.”

“As one of the first institutions in the country to launch these flexible upskilling programmes, they proved very popular and continue to be so. Together with our online partner, we now have a better understanding of the recruitment pipeline and have been able to manage numbers more effectively, and we look forward to welcoming new students joining us.”

However the only form of extra support comes from a single page within the “Succeeding on your Computer Science programme” module. In the OIAHE group complaint, students suggested that preliminary readings would help solve the issue. The course is also advertised as developing employability skills with the statement “The programme equips graduates for a range of positions in software and web development, IT systems, support and programming” yet students have complained that there is little opportunity to learn programming languages which is an essential skill for most employers. Students have pointed out on the group complaint where there are potential opportunities on the course to learn programming languages.

Support for students in general is a key complaint amongst students enrolled on the course and the report lists the modules that students complained contained errors. For example, Computer Architectures and Operating Systems has a textbook self-published on Amazon by the module author which, when the module ran for the first time, had to be rewritten during the module due to numerous errors. Those errors would have particularly affected students approaching the subject for the first time as they could not work out why they were not getting the correct answer.

The online MSc Computer Science course is relatively new, meaning teething errors in content are expected but students' complaints run deeper than surface issues.

Nouse spoke to a student who set up informal networks on Slack and Discord. They have also started weekly study groups for most modules.  For one of the current modules, students have put together some practical activities that other students can do. This student gave the opinion that “When students start running teaching activities for their course, I can't help but think the University isn't providing the tuition students are paying for.”

The OIAHE did point out that “It is difficult for us to reach any clear conclusions about the impact the issues raised by the Group had on the overall quality of the course. This is because the University has not presented evidence that its complaint investigation considered these issue properly, and also because an assessment of quality involves some academic judgement. Nevertheless there is in our view enough evidence to show that the issues raised, together with the staffing levels, had an impact on the students’ experience of the courses.”

In their complaint, the students also voiced concern that they had not had access to examination scripts, whereas on-campus students could have access to scripts.The University’s complaint outcome letter decided that students had “no right” to exam scripts. But the OIAHE reports states “This may be accurate, insofar as access to scripts was described in the Guide to Assessment as a recommendation rather than as a policy. However, we feel that it would have been helpful for the University to have provided students with an explanation about why the Department was unable to facilitate access to exam scripts.”

Despite students having two meetings with the PVC Teaching, Learning and Students) students feel there has been a lack of recognition at a senior level just how bad the situation is, and this is reflected in the University's complaint response. The complaint response took them 7 months despite regular chasing even though their stated usual timeframe being 5 weeks. The OIAHE report acknowledges that due to the complexity of the case, the initial 5 week timeframe had to be extended but “seven months represents an unreasonable delay in the University’s handling of the group complaint.”

The overall outcome of the OIAHE report stated that “we do not believe that the University has accounted for the disappointment experienced by the Group because the programme had not delivered the experience they were reasonably expecting, in terms of staffing levels, flexibility or practical experience. We do not think that the University provided adequate information about assessment procedures and the Group suggests that this affected students’ confidence in the fairness of assessments.”

The University stated that “We are very sorry to hear from our students about their experience and we have acted quickly to tackle their concerns, including working with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) who investigated the issues.”