English regulator: 'universities must be clear about online delivery'

UUK also calls for OfS to clarify ‘what constitutes a breach of registration conditions’ during the pandemic

June 10, 2020

England’s regulator has said universities must provide students with “clear and timely information” about changes to their courses next year, including how much teaching will be delivered online.

In guidance for the sector, the Office for Students expects institutions to make sure current students are aware of “what teaching will be delivered in what way” and how these expectations might be adjusted because of changes to public health advice. Prospective students should receive “enough information to be able to make an informed decision about starting that course, choosing a different course or deferring”, according to the guidance.

This information should include information about whether modules, or other aspects such as placements or field trips, have now changed or reduced; as well the extent to which the course will now be delivered online rather than face-to-face and how the balance between, lectures, seminars and self-learning has changed.

The OfS said during the “exceptional circumstances caused by the pandemic” it did not intend to take regulatory action unless there was significant disregard for Competition and Markets Authority guidance or a significant breach of consumer protection law.

This would include current students not being informed of changes to their course, universities withdrawing complaint handing arrangements and other student support services, or an institution only providing vague information to prospective students.

Other examples of where the OfS would take action include if an institution offered students a contract for study that would allow it to make significant changes once the course had begun or “seek to introduce a blanket policy to refuse refunds without having due regard for guidance on consumer protection law”.

Since the impact of the coronavirus crisis on universities, and in particular the expected drop in student recruitment next year, became clear, the OfS has made a number of announcements aimed at stopping universities from reacting to the crisis “in ways that undermine students’ interests or threaten the stability of England’s higher education sector during the crisis”.

This includes a moratorium on unconditional offer making and proposing a new regulatory condition that would allow the OfS to fine institutions for what it considers bad admissions behaviour during the pandemic.

As the OfS announced its latest guidance, Universities UK published its response to the consultation on the new condition, in which the organisation said it “does not support the full extent of new OfS regulatory powers”.  

Other sector leaders have already raised concerns about the scope of the powers that the regulator would gain. Universities UK said the scope of any new regulatory intervention should be targeted more effectively and that the regulator must “provide an unequivocal commitment that any condition of registration would in fact be time-limited”.

UUK said the proposals would damage recruitment to courses where factors beyond actual academic attainment are central to admissions decision making.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of UUK, said “there must be clearer guidelines over what would constitute a breach of the proposed regulations. Failure to do so could harm the significant progress made in opening up our universities to students from more diverse backgrounds."

“It is also imperative that universities are able to retain their autonomy,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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