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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.
The Office for Students will intervene if there is evidence of serious concerns about the quality of a university’s online provision, its chief executive has warned.
In a Student Room webinar Nicola Dandridge also assured students that no university was in imminent danger of financial collapse, but added that some may need to contemplate a merger in the longer term.
Dandridge said the regulator was “listening carefully” to notifications from students, student unions and outside bodies to “see if any patterns are emerging” regarding poor provision on a course or at a university and would use its powers if necessary.
She said that while the OfS had issued guidance making clear the need to “maintain standards”, it would not proscribe a set of minimum standards laying out what universities were expected to deliver.
She urged students to complain to the ombudsman and use their legal protections if they had real concerns about the remote teaching put in place in response to the lockdown. Universities provision for disadvantaged and vulnerable students was also a particular focus for the watchdog, said Dandridge.
“What good and bad online provision looks like is a complex area and we are looking at it very closely,” she said. “Students have every right to expect a good quality education experience, notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic, and that’s the test we are going to be operating.”
The Student Room Q&A session, entitled Will Covid-19 affect your university experience, covered questions on deferrals, exam results, international students, teaching and learning and the campus experience in the new academic year and universities’ financial difficulties.
Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International, said the lockdown had proved to be a “rocket booster” to the delivery of education online and had brought some benefits.
Representatives from Westminster and Heriot Watt universities described the rapid and successful delivery of remote learning since campus restrictions were imposed in March and how a mix of online and face to face teaching was likely to be the model from September.
Dandridge suggested that prospective students should be asking universities about their offer in terms of face to face teaching and that this “may well inform their judgement about whether to choose one university or another”.
Panellists said universities had embraced technology to try to keep campus communities thriving - citing examples of societies using Zoom, spaces for international students and virtual whisky tasting sessions – and that this learning would inform plans for September if restrictions were still in place.
Student Room members asked whether universities in severe financial difficulties as a consequence of the pandemic would be left to go to the wall. Dandridge said that while it was a “live issue” students could be reassured that there was “no imminent risk of a collapse”.
She said: “OfS and the government are working very closely with institutions on the issue. Many universities at the moment just don’t know what is going to happen. If a university were to get into difficulty we would work closely with them to protect students.”
Mergers down the line “may be a sensible way forward” for some institutions, she added in response to the suggestion.
Panellists also discussed putting plans in place to support freshers who have missed months of schooling and making arrangements for international students who may have to quarantine on campus when they first arrive.
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