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Coronavirus and Student Matters - Advice for Higher Education Institutions

on Tuesday, 07 April 2020.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to present unprecedented challenges for the higher education sector.

Following on from our previous blog, we update our guidance for higher education institutions.

What is the Latest Position on Closure?

The position of the Office for Students (OfS) remains that higher education providers should follow the latest advice from Public Health England and make their own decisions regarding closure.

What is Expected of Providers?

"Our expectation is that providers should make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for achievement to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely, and to enable a fair and robust admissions process for 2020-21 entrants." (OfS, Letter to Providers, 25 March 2020)

In particular, the key priorities should be:

  • ensuring delivery of good quality teaching and support
  • vulnerable students and their support
  • closure of university buildings and facilities
  • student accommodation and how students can remain in their accommodation
  • students' mental health and support available for students' mental health and wellbeing

International students, care leavers, estranged students, disabled students and those who live with people in high risk groups are all considered to be vulnerable and in need of the most urgent support.

This Includes:

  • guaranteed appropriate accommodation
  • access to established financial support and immediate hardship assistance if required
  • practical support for food, medical and cleaning supplies
  • ongoing support relating to student queries and wellbeing will all be critical whilst restrictions remain place

What is the Effect of the OfS's New 'Slimmed Down' Regulatory Reporting Regime?

"Providers will already be making these arrangements and we expect only to take regulatory action where we consider that reasonable efforts have not been made or where standards have been compromised. These are extraordinary times for the higher education sector – as for the rest of society – and it is right that we adjust our regulatory expectations accordingly." (OfS, Letter to Providers, 25 March 2020)

As of 25 March 2020, the changes made by the OfS include:

  • The list of reportable events (condition F3) have been reduced.
  • Reporting requirements relating to a student protection plan (condition C3) have been suspended.
  • Reporting requirements relating to public interest governance (condition E1) have been suspended.
  • Information and reporting requirements (including reporting cases of suspected coronavirus) under conditions F3 and F4 have been limited - further guidance can be located here.
  • Enhanced monitoring requirements under condition F3 imposed for individual providers have been suspended (except for financial viability and sustainability).
  • Specific conditions of registration that were imposed on or before 25 March 2020 have been suspended.
  • Requirement to publish an access and participation statement (condition A2) is suspended.
  • Requirement to publish transparency information (condition F1) is suspended.
  • Routine monitoring of activity in relation access and participation plan (condition A1) is suspended.
  • Monitoring reports relating to grant funding in the Approved (fee cap) category has been minimised or postponed.

These changes will remain in effect until further notice.

The new reporting regime reflects the OfS turning its attention to the identification and management of financial risk and protecting student interests. Providers are no longer expected to report on sustainability and viability concerns over a three or five year timescale but instead they should notify the OfS:

  • of issues of acute short-term financial risk
  • where they cease or suspend courses without providing equivalent alternative study options
  • where they are unable to award qualifications or credit as they had planned

It is also important to note that consumer law still applies and contractual terms and conditions for students need to remain fair and easily understood.

Coronavirus Legal Advice

Financial Assistance for Universities

Term three tuition fee payments by the Student Loans Company are going ahead as scheduled, but considerable financial uncertainty remains.

In the absence of any specific schemes or plans to provide financial assistance to the HE sector, the OfS is working with the Department for Education and other stakeholders to assess the options available.

Some providers may be eligible for assistance through the government's support for business package.

The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan MP, has directed HE providers to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to help support staff wages and keep people in employment.

Unconditional Offers

The OfS was already consulting on modifications to the university admissions system and the use of unconditional offers when the pandemic struck.

On 24 March 2020, the OfS responded to the government's announcement of the cancellation of all public examinations by calling for all higher education providers to stop making unconditional offers and amendments to current offers for at least two weeks. This is to give Ofqual time to develop a fair way to award A-levels. The logic is that students unsettled by the crisis should not feel pressured into accepting unconditional offers that might not be in their best long term interest.

The moratorium applies to all subjects and extends to:

  • adjusting existing offers (including changing them to unconditional offers)
  • offers to mature and other applicants who are not reliant on qualification results or already have their qualifications
  • offer making for UK, EU and international applicants
  • where providers were intending to make unconditional offers to applicants before changes to A-levels for this year were announced

New conditional offers can be made, but they must be responsible and in the best interests of students.

Ofqual published details of how A-levels (and GCSEs) will be awarded on 3 April 2020 and further guidance to the HE sector is expected shortly.

Government Helpline

The DfE has set up a helpline to assist with education related queries. The helpline is open between 08:00 and 18:00 Monday to Friday and 10:00 to 16:00 on Saturday and Sunday. The helpline can be accessed by phone (0800 046 8687) and email.

For further support in relation to student issues please contact Kris Robbetts in our Higher Education team on 07795 662 796, or complete the form below.

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