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Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University and Chair of AHUA, identifies the key themes and direction of policy travel amid last week’s deluge of HE and FE papers published by the Department for Education.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Students, a cross-party group of MPs and Peers, is launching a short inquiry into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on university students, with specific reference to student calls for rebates in tuition and accommodation payments.
Students applying to start university or college in 2021 have an additional two weeks to complete their applications, following announcements in the UK to close schools and colleges, UCAS has announced.
After a year that most would rather forget, HEi-know asked four vice-chancellors what hopes and expectations for higher education are on their wishlist for 2021.
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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