Consider refunds if teaching falls short, regulator tells v-cs

Office for Students suggests universities may need to provide extra lectures or repeat courses after pandemic-related disruption

January 14, 2021
Source: iStock

England’s higher education regulator has advised universities to consider offering students fee refunds if the “quality and quantity” of teaching have not lived up to what institutions promised at the beginning of the academic year.

In a letter to institutions, the Office for Students asks them to review whether they were “sufficiently clear” with students about what teaching and assessment would look like in 2020-21 and what changes might be necessary. This will involve assessing provision in the autumn term and current plans for the spring and summer term.

If an institution concludes students weren’t adequately informed, “we expect you actively to consider your obligations under consumer law for refunds or other forms of redress”, according to the OfS.

The regulator suggests that universities may need to repeat parts of courses or put on extra lectures.

“We have heard from some students that they were not clear about what had been promised, or that what was promised has not been delivered in practice,” writes Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the OfS.

She warns that institutions must inform the regulator if this is the outcome of the review. If students or others highlight problems with a particular institution, the OfS will expect to see the review documents, she says.

Students must be informed about their right to seek refunds or other forms of redress, which includes the opportunity to repeat parts of their course that were not delivered this year, Ms Lapworth says.  

The intervention follows a letter from Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, to the OfS on 13 January. This states that the government expected higher education providers “to maintain quality and academic standards, and the quantity of tuition should not drop”.

Ms Donelan asks the OfS to “reiterate to the sector that students should make a complaint to their institutions if they have concerns about the quality of course delivery and that they can take their case to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they remain unsatisfied”.

The OfS also advises universities which have not yet provided students with rent rebates for term-time accommodation during the lockdown to consider doing so, and for universities to liaise with private providers about doing the same.

The OfS says it will publish revised guidance on protecting quality and standards during the pandemic by the end of January. This is set to include expectations on appropriate “safety nets” for students affected by the pandemic and consulting with students about assessment and awarding plans.

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said that the “pandemic is having a profound and ongoing impact on students who are still facing exceptional challenges”.

“Universities and colleges have generally worked tirelessly under great pressure to ensure that students continue to receive good-quality teaching, albeit now largely delivered remotely. We have consistently emphasised the importance of universities being clear to students about potential changes to course delivery where face-to-face teaching is not possible,” she said.

“Of course, we understand the tremendous pressures that the new lockdown imposes on universities and colleges, and some may no longer be able to deliver the teaching and assessment arrangements that they said they would. This may not be in their direct control. However, in these circumstances they should do all they can to offer students alternatives – for instance, by putting on extra lectures or course content later in the year – and where that is not possible, they should consider providing refunds where appropriate.”

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