Coronavirus: English regulator to ‘support financial sustainability’

New objective to support university finances during Covid-19 crisis suggests a new path for England’s higher education regulator

March 18, 2020

England’s higher education regulator has signalled that it will act to support universities’ “financial sustainability” given the enormous economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.

In a letter to higher education institutions sent on 17 March, Susan Lapworth, director of competition and registration at the Office for Students, explains that the organisation has now set “three key objectives for the coming months, which reflect how we will intend to respond to the impact of Covid-19”.

Among these objectives is the goal of “working with providers to develop practical ways to maintain teaching quality and standards, enable adequate exams and assessment and support financial sustainability,” says Ms Lapworth.

The latter objective of supporting financial sustainability would raise the question of whether there could be assistance for institutions stricken by the Covid-19 pandemic.

That would represent a departure for the regulator, which has repeatedly said that it will not prop up universities in financial difficulty.

With international student numbers for the 2020-21 academic year likely to be severely impacted by the travel restrictions across the world, many UK universities look set to face significant financial problems.

In her letter to institutions, Ms Lapworth says that the OfS would seek to “minimise long-run disruption to the English higher education system [by] reducing permanent damage and laying the foundations for the sector to recover as quickly as possible once the pandemic is over”.

The OfS will also “support the government’s objectives by sharing information [about Covid-19 cases] with providers and enabling them to respond effectively”, Ms Lapworth adds.

In the short term, the OfS will also suspend its normal regulatory regime to “minimise its impact on your students and staff”, Ms Lapworth adds on the need to “avoid placing any unnecessary burdens” on institutions.

“We will do this by giving you clarity about our regulatory requirements during this time, minimising our requirements where possible, working closely with other stakeholders to avoid duplication, and minimising uncertainty through advice and clear communications,” she says.

“Over the next week, we will provide more detail about what this means in practice,” she adds.

The regulator will also be pausing any existing consultations or information requests, and will not add any new ones either, the OfS also confirmed.

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