UK higher education providers should make no promises to students to expect on-campus experience at the beginning of the next academic year, the country’s regulatory body the Office for Students has warned.
Speaking at a UK government education committee meeting, OfS chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, warned that universities and colleges are required to be “as clear as they can” so that students know what to expect in the next year.
“None of us knows exactly what is going to be happening in the autumn,” she said, but added that when students accept an offer from a university, they ought to know in “broad terms what they’ll be getting”.
“What we don’t want to see is promises that it’s all going to be back to usual and an on-campus experience when that is not the case,” she explained.
“The point here is absolute clarity to students so they know what they are getting in advance to accepting offers.”
Dandridge added that the OfS expects colleges and universities to make “all reasonable effort” to ensure online education provision is of good quality.
“Universities and colleges are making every reasonable effort to ensure that students continue to learn, continue with their studies, and are supported to receive good outcomes and the quality of their teaching is robust,” she noted.
Whether students should be eligible for refunds or discounts for education that has moved online – as the National Union of Students has called for – Dandridge said it would be how students had been affected and whether there had been a breach of contract.
“Of course students have got contractual rights, they’ve got rights under consumer protection regulation,” Dandridge continued.
“We are about to publish guidance on those issues. If students feel that they haven’t had the quality of teaching they expected, then they do have rights to complain to the ombudsmen and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.”
OfS chairman, Michael Barber, added that for the moment, “students should be expected to pay as they have because we are in a transition phase”.
Covid-19 is also expected to limit work-based learning and placements, which educators are postponing for the majority of students and switching to “more theoretical learning”, Dandridge continued.
“Where that can’t happen, we see universities really thinking through which the essential elements of the course that have to be delivered are.
“There are close liaisons with the professional, statutory and regulatory bodies to make sure that they are satisfied that graduating students have the experience and qualification they need,” she said.
NUS president, Zamzam Ibrahim, warned that international students who have returned home might not have the resources to access online learning, while synchronous online learning adds another difficulty for some students overseas.
“There is a huge time difference that needs to be taken into account for a lot of students,” she said.
She said visa extensions are an additional concern for international students remaining in the UK.
“Tailored support needs to be put in place for international students,” she suggested. “Moving forward, a streamlined Tier 4 visa service process is needed to alleviate that stress for the sector but also for international students themselves.”
Also giving evidence to MPs, Debra Humphris, chair of University Alliance, an organization representing 11 professional and technical universities across the UK, requested clear guidance for the country’s higher education sector.
The UK’s Covid-19 recovery strategy does not outline how universities and colleges would open, unlike approaches in Canada or Australia.
“What we really need is clear guidance from the government, under the auspices of Public Health England, about how universities can safely return for both staff and students.
“That can’t come soon enough,” she added.
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