Weaknesses of English student protection plans highlighted

Office for Students says it will require some institutions to revise their contingency plans for closure

November 20, 2018
Source: iStock

England’s higher education regulator has said that it will require some providers to revise their “student protection plans” amid concerns that they do not sufficiently protect undergraduates from the impact of a university closure.

Every provider is required to have a plan setting out what would happen to students should a course, campus or institution close, in order to register with the Office for Students. In the wake of revelations that a number of universities are facing huge financial deficits and the assertion that the OfS will not “bail out” failing institutions, they have been touted as an important backstop for students who might be affected.

Susan Lapworth, director of competition and the register at the OfS, said that all registered institutions have an approved plan that has been judged to be “appropriate” for the level of risk to a provider’s students. However, some “could be improved”, she said.

A look over universities’ plans shows that there is a fairly generic level of assurance across the sector. Most plans say that in the event of a closure, an institution will either “teach out” – meaning it will finish teaching the current students but recruit no more – or transfer students to an appropriate or similar programme at another university. No plans specify which university students might potentially move to.

Andy Westwood, vice-dean for social responsibility at the University of Manchester, said that this raised serious concerns. There were differences in rankings, course mix, teaching quality and outcomes at virtually every provider, he said, but the main problem was geography and location.

“How do we know how far a student is prepared or able to travel? Even within big cities such as Manchester and London that can be a significant time and financial commitment,” Professor Westwood said.

The plans are also supposed to be “easily available to current and prospective students”. However, a number of them are difficult, if not impossible, to find online.

Ms Lapworth said that the OfS intended to issue further guidance about protection plans later this year.

“We will require some providers to revise and resubmit their plans to ensure that the measures they contain continue to provide adequate protection for students and are clearly communicated,” she said. “We will not hesitate to challenge a provider where there is a risk to the interest of its students.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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