Students ‘actively encouraged’ to notify OfS of quality concerns

English regulator to work with students and their unions to increase awareness of its powers

December 3, 2020

England’s sector regulator will work with students and their unions to “actively encourage” them to notify it of concerns over quality at their universities.

The Office for Students – which enforces regulatory conditions and has powers including the ability to block universities receiving public student loan funding – already has a system for “students, staff and other people and organisations who wish to notify us of a matter that may be of regulatory interest to us”.

But Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive, outlined a “new initiative” at a briefing for journalists on the organisation’s annual review, published on 3 December.

Ms Danbridge said that “over the next couple of months we…now intend to work with students and students’ unions to significantly improve how students are able to raise concerns with us about the quality of their teaching and support from their university or college. And to make sure they are better aware of the circumstances in which it would be appropriate for them to notify us.”

She added: “Where students or students’ unions have evidence that a university or college may have breached one of our regulatory conditions or is not providing adequate teaching or learning then we will investigate.

“That’s not only going to assist us in responding to specific issues, but will give us a wider range of information about individual universities and colleges that can inform our regulations.”

In the wake of the pandemic, universities are dealing with large-scale student discontent over the transition to online teaching. The OfS’ plans may be of interest to students – and may raise eyebrows among universities.

Ms Dandridge said that the move was “not about dealing with individual complaints” – students raise these with their university and then take them to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they are not resolved. That route continues, added Ms Dandridge.

But she continued: “If a student is not getting the quality of teaching and learning they are entitled to or it’s not what is promised then that plays back into our regulatory conditions, and we will…investigate it in the usual way and look at whether it’s appropriate to take enforcement action.”

The aim, Ms Dandridge said, was to ensure students and students’ unions know “how they can best inform us of issues that are relevant to our regulatory concerns” and “know what powers we have, so their notifications to us reflect what it is we can do and then we can take regulatory action in response”.

She continued: “It is very clear on our website and we speak about the possibility of students and students’ unions making notifications to us. What we want to do is encourage that over the next couple of months and [ensure] that it really does become a meaningful dialogue – but in a way that’s aligned to our regulatory powers.”

Sir Michael Barber, the OfS chair, said: “It’s basically a shift away from notifications being possible in a passive sense and now actively encouraging people to use that if they have got a challenge.”

While “a lot of very good work is being done by universities”, the shift would “mean that where there are problems, we are more likely to find out about them sooner and faster”, he also said.

In the annual review, the OfS says that universities should take the opportunity to radically improve digital teaching and learning in the wake of the pandemic.

Sir Michael, who is leading a review of digital teaching and learning, due to report in early 2021, says the sector should collectively “ensure no student suffers from digital poverty”.

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