GSA pass no confidence motion in Higher Ed Partners


Nouse covers the Graduate Students' Association's lack of confidence in Higher Ed Partners

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By Alanah Hammond

ON 12 JANUARY 2023 the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) passed a motion of no confidence in Higher Ed Partners (HEP), the third party who are responsible for the marketing, recruitment and student support functions of the University of York’s online postgraduate courses.

The GSA aims to call on the University to cease working with Higher Ed Partners as soon as possible and to request a review on their partnership. Ten people voted on the GSA Council which consists of Sabbatical Officers and Part-Time Officers. Out of the ten Councillors who voted, nine people voted in favour while one voted to abstain.

The University provides 13 part-time online taught postgraduate courses in partnership with HEP but, in particular, the GSA’s vote of no confidence was impacted by the missold Msc Computer Science course refunds which Nouse reported on last March.

In this fiasco, an Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education report dated 4 February 2022 verified that students had been mis-sold the course and justified the refund for students. Complaints included oversubscribed courses and misleading marketing in the course description.

Nouse has used direct evidence from this recent motion of no confidence and has also spoken to the GSA’s Online Student Officer about their experience with Higher Ed Partners.The motion of no confidence explicitly calls attention to issues with enrolled students’ data.

The motion describes, “there have been reports from students about the data HEP holds not being kept up to date, and examples of emails and phone calls sent by them to students exceeding the level expected by the contact strategy agreed with the University.”

In further detail, the motion explained that, “student reps have identified 12 incidents of inappropriate processing of personal data by HEP in an 11-week period during 2022”. Within the motion, it also details HEP’s response to these data issues. They explained that their “data quality is operating beyond 99.5 percent” and they “believe this is within reasonable tolerances of what can be expected of a business of this scale”.

Nouse asked the GSA’s Online Student Officer to explain examples of such data breaches. They explained, “students who are enrolled on modules are still getting reminders from HEP to enrol, so suggesting that students haven’t paid their tuition fees, because the data hasn’t moved from the University.

Students are opting out of marketing emails and then HEP are opting them back in.” They explained that although the University insisted that these aren’t sales calls but admin reminders, the persistent emails and phone calls felt like sales. They added, “But HEP are actively recruiting telesales people – if [the emails and phone calls] are not sales, why are HEP recruiting telesales? It is for sales.”

Indeed, the motion also highlights this same sentiment, describing how “HEP has advertised vacancies for ‘In-bound and Outbound Telesales Representatives’, which includes answering questions about courses, meeting sales targets and facilitating future sales”.

The motion describes such “aggressive and persistent sales tactics” as “predatory”, “valuing of income over outcomes takes the marketisation of Higher Education to an uncomfortable extreme”. Thus, GSA claims that such tactics “must be resisted, not only on principle but also on a practical basis”.

The University and HEP responded that “Higher Ed Partners and the University of York take data protection very seriously and we both adhere to the highest industry standards. Students raised a small number of concerns with us in June 2022 and as a result we have made improvements to our systems and data quality processes. If any student has any concerns about how their data is processed we would encourage them to get in touch with their Student Success Coordinator.”

Nouse asked the GSA’s Online Student Officer about their thoughts on HEP’s marketing. They explained, “The number of students they get signed up by not giving full information about the course is quite shocking really.” This lack of information, they explained, made students alike interpret for themselves what the course would be: “flexible”.

Yet, the GSA’s Online Student Officer explained that “although the course is flexible, if you time your modules wrong, it will extend your course date, and so tuition, by up to 16 months, which doesn’t come through in the marketing”.

Indeed, the motion of no confidence draws attention to this same point, describing, “The publicly accessible marketing material has not drawn attention to the potential for an unusually long course extension of 16 months, which is incongruous to the other marketing statements of ‘on your own terms’ and ‘without putting your life on hold’. This was highlighted by the OIA as an area of concern.”

The motion also highlights the interpretative lack of information: “HEP dripfeeds information to potential applicants using a sales funnel model. Whilst this is common in other sectors, it is not usual in Higher Education and conflicts with the CMA guidance.”Nouse asked the GSA’s Online Student Officer about their own experience with their expectations of the course based on its marketing.

They explained, “I thought there would be more practical activities with the frequent use of the word ‘skills’ in the marketing material”. They added, “I also thought there would be more contact with staff but there isn’t any synchronist communication with them unless you’re a course rep.”

The University and HEP responded to this saying that “We have been working closely with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) and, following a review of the marketing material, we have significantly revised the programme webpages in response. Our programmes and webpages are regularly reviewed. If any student has any concerns about their course we would encourage them to get in touch.”

The GSA’s Online Student Officer highlighted particular moments of frustration when it took up to a week, on an eight-week course, to get an answer to a question posted on the message board. They added, “Some of the responses from tutors have been pretty bad. For example, with one tutor, we thought they might have been a robot because the only thing they responded to the questions we asked was ‘read the textbook’.”

The GSA’s Online Student Officer did defend the university, however, using the example of the MSc Computer Science course. They explained, “The course is trying to be all things to all people. The University can’t support that, especially with the workload and the fact that the University hasn’t been able to cope with the number of students.”

They concluded by stating, HEP are “one of the most irritating organisations [they] have dealt with” and that HEP’s influence on the course has led to personal feelings of “regret” about taking their course. To conclude the motion, GSA states “we have no confidence in Higher Ed Partners” and believe “The University would be better able to manage the online taught postgraduate courses without the involvement of Higher Ed Partners”.

The GSA therefore want to “call on the University to cease working with Higher Ed Partners as soon as possible” and “express disappointment at the University’s handling of the partnership and the effect it has had on students and staff ”, as well as “request a review is carried out to ensure the worst effects of this venture can be avoided by the University in the future”.

Nouse asked the GSA’s Online Student Office to comment on what resolution they personally wanted from this vote of no confidence. They explained, “the desired outcome would be for the University to take more control of the courses. York staff want to change things in the right way but pushing things to an outsider organisation makes things harder to manage.”

A spokesperson for the University said: “We are proud of our strategic partnership with Higher Ed Partners, which has opened up routes into education across the world and created opportunities for students whose work and family commitments might otherwise prevent them from engaging in studying."

"Our commitment to online learning aligns strongly with our principles of widening access, environmental sustainability and internationalism – all linked to being a University for public good. More than 600 students have graduated from across all of the programmes so far, testimony to the success of the partnership, but more importantly to the commitment and motivation of our students".