Higher education providers that close courses should offer students alternative programmes or help them transfer to another institution, and offer them a refund if this is not possible.
This is according to new guidelines that have been agreed by membership organisations including Universities UK, GuildHE and the Independent Universities Group. The Association of Colleges and Study UK, which represents independent providers, has also put its name to the document, which was released after the government announced plans for new student protection requirements as part of the higher education Green Paper.
The guidelines accept that higher education providers may occasionally have to change or close courses – for example, because of the departure of key staff – but say that institutions should have “fair and accessible” policies and practices governing this.
In particular, providers should “act transparently and enter into dialogue with student bodies to identify options and minimise the impact on students affected by changes and closures”, the paper says.
If “teaching out” students on a course set for closure is not possible, universities should have policies addressing when and how they will offer alternative courses and how the institution will help students to transfer to other providers, including transfer of credit, the guidelines say.
If this is not possible, there should be “clear policies for refunding all or part of paid fees and recording the amount of credit/academic progress achieved”, the guidelines say.
The document, signed also by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the National Union of Students, calls for universities that partner with other providers to deliver courses to have clear policies on how they would help learners affected by closures to complete their studies.
It adds that, in the event of closures, other providers should “identify from their academic programmes alternative courses with comparable academic requirements” – and that funding councils and representative bodies would “do all that we could” to facilitate transfers.
The Green Paper says that government reforms focused on student choice bring about an “increased likelihood” of providers having to shut down courses or to close entirely.
It says that ministers may introduce requirements for providers that make closures to ensure continuity of provision for students, and to provide financial recompense.
Alex Proudfoot, the chief executive of Study UK, said the code of practice would help providers in “meeting the challenge of the Green Paper head on”.
But he said that current rules meant that it would be impossible for independent providers to teach out international students in the event of the institution losing its visa sponsorship licence.
“International students…have waited for too long for their interests to be put at the heart of our regulatory framework,” Mr Proudfoot said. “All healthy markets experience some volatility, but the investment of time, energy and money that students make in their higher education is on such a unique scale that we must do more to protect them from such events.”