While these enforced changes may prove to be positive for higher education in the long term, the immediate priority is to minimise the impact on current and prospective students who remain understandably concerned.
The situation continues to evolve daily but we set out below responses to some of the most common questions being asked at the moment.
On 18 March 2020, the government confirmed that schools, early years and colleges will close from Monday 23 March 2020 until further notice. The announcement did not extend to HE providers but did indicate that universities are taking steps already to keep their staff and students safe and that Vice Chancellors will continue to receive support from the DfE.
At present, we are not aware that any universities are closing entirely, although open days, graduation ceremonies and other non-essential activities are being cancelled or postponed and those students who can go home are being asked to do so. A number of Vice Chancellors have been clear that full closure is simply not possible in any event, not least because hundreds of students have nowhere else to go and certain research activity must continue. Instead, restricted campus operations are being put in place and look likely to continue until June 2020 at the earliest.
It should be noted that the Coronavirus Bill was introduced to the House of Commons and given its first reading on 19 March 2020. The second reading is due to follow on 23 March 2020.
Schedule 15 of the Bill contains provisions relating to temporary closure of educational institutions, including higher education providers. A temporary closure direction can be applied to:
Before giving a direction under this paragraph, the Secretary of State:
A temporary closure direction may require the taking of reasonable steps in general terms, or require the taking of particular steps that the Secretary of State or a body with delegated powers (appropriate authority) considers reasonable, in relation to:
The duty to comply with the temporary closure direction may be enforced by the Secretary of State by application to the High Court or County Court for an injunction. This application may be made without notice.
Schedule 16 of the Coronavirus Bill contains provisions relating to temporary continuity directions and these may also be issued by the Secretary of State to higher education providers. More specifically, they may require a provider to take steps specified in the direction, for a specified period, in connection with the provision of:
At the moment, there is no definitive answer to this. Most universities are making it clear to students that they are not in a position to refund tuition fees for lost teaching time and remain focused on implementing measures to provide as much educational continuity as possible. Each provider will have its own contractual arrangements with students and these, combined with the measures contained in student protection plans, should shape each institutional response.
On 17 March 2020, the OfS published a letter setting out its planned approach to coronavirus.
Three objectives for the coming months were confirmed:
The OfS is clear that it is unlikely to draw negative conclusions about the actions a provider has taken or not taken where it is clear that it has properly considered the needs of its students and has made a reasonable decision. It is, as ever, important that the reasons for making significant decisions are properly recorded.
On 9 March 2020, institutions were asked to inform the OfS of the number of individuals with suspected or confirmed symptoms of the coronavirus. In view of the speed with which the pandemic is developing, this request has been withdrawn until further notice.
The OfS anticipates introducing a reduced requirement for reportable events, limiting them to the minimum necessary to ensure that students’ interests are protected as far as is reasonably practicable.
On 18 March 2020, the OIA published a briefing note for providers anticipating the sort of issues that may in due course lead to formal complaints from students and should feature in the response to the outbreak at an institutional level.
The suspension or reduction of face-to-face teaching is already leading many to consider possible entitlement to fee reductions. Most providers will have a force majeure provision in their student contract but the extent to which this will be effective in avoiding legal liability will depend on a range of factors. These include clause wording, the extent to which the clause is consumer law compliant and what has been and is being done to mitigate the effects of the disruption. The need to pay refunds and/or compensation cannot be ruled out. As we have seen with the disruption caused by UCU strike action, whatever the contractual position, providers are expected to do what they can to prioritise student interests and minimise adverse impact.
The cancellation, postponement or modification of assessments will all cause difficulties and the options available to, and effects on, students will not be consistent across academic disciplines. Taking steps which recognise the circumstances of students on particular courses, including those with practical or performance exams, will help to minimise adverse impact. Keeping students informed will also be critical.
Existing placement arrangements are unlikely to remain workable and delay is likely even if an alternative approach can be found. If it is possible to change the order of assessment to reduce progression delays this should be done.
There have been media reports of some students being verbally abused or assaulted by members of the public. Providers will need to be clear that any student who has been subject to this sort of behaviour, or any other hate crime, should report it and expect to receive support.
Good communication and the availability of support remain essential whilst restrictions are in place and uncertainty remains.
The above reflects guidance as at 20 March 2020. We will continue to update this as the situation develops.