On 24 June 2020, the National Union of Students (NUS) launched its 'student safety net' campaign.
Described as a call for 'mass action', the campaign is aimed at securing debt relief for students who have faced the most disruption due to the pandemic, and also calls for 'financial compensation or the ability for students to redo a proportion of their studies at no additional cost'.
It is estimated that around 20% of students have been unable to access any learning during the lockdown and that around a third do not believe the remote education they have received to be of a 'high quality'.
Whilst students are being asked to lodge a 'complaint chain', it is not HE providers who are being targeted. Instead, recognising that the sector faces significant financial challenges of its own, the NUS is lobbying for a 'national sector wide solution to ensure that students are treated fairly and that institutions have the support they need to deal with the situation at hand'.
Before and after the NUS announcement, the Department for Education has emphasised the autonomy of universities; the implication being that Government intervention is not considered appropriate. Legal action against individual institutions regarding the adequacy of remote provision remains an acknowledged possibility, but the advice of the Minister for Higher Education to students unhappy with their provider's response to the pandemic is to raise a complaint through the usual internal channels before referring the matter to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) if issues remain unresolved.
For its part, the OIA recognises the pressures institutions are under and does not expect full compliance with the timeframes contained in its Good Practice Framework when dealing with student complaints. Rather, emphasis is placed on the importance of pragmatism, flexibility and transparency. It is also clear that the OIA is unlikely to uphold a complaint and make recommendations where a provider has delivered learning opportunities in a way that enables students to meet learning outcomes, removes disadvantages in assessments and directs students to appropriate support.
Whether or not the NUS 'complaint chain' will lead to Government action depends on how many students sign up in support of it. Even if a critical mass of support is not generated, or it is but the Government declines to respond, students will still be able to take the matter up individually, or in groups, with their institutions directly and recourse to the OIA and potentially the courts will remain an option thereafter.
In its latest (second) briefing note published on 22 June 2020, the OIA relayed its view that the initial crisis period is over and focus has now passed on to the new academic year. Notwithstanding the challenges faced by institutions, the OIA believes it to be reasonable for students to have higher expectations of their provider now that there has been time for planning and adjustment. Provision that may have been deemed sufficient in the middle of lockdown is unlikely to be enough in a 'more managed and planned environment'.
As previously, providers are encouraged to prioritise clear communications with students as a means of addressing issues before they become complaints. Information about what can be expected from the student experience next year will be critical, particularly as the obligations imposed on providers by consumer law remain unchanged. Specific reference is made to exclusion or force majeure clauses, which are less likely to be reasonable and reliable for providers when the new academic year begins. Regarding course delivery and quality, the OIA confirms that these issues remain the domain of the Office for Students (OfS)and Quality Assurance Agency to the extent that they do not concern academic judgement.
On 19 June 2020, the OfS released a new letter to providers to update them on its approach to regulation and confirm the deadlines for data returns.
As would be expected, the OfS is planning a phased return to its normal regulatory role, which will include clarification of its approach and requirements and the reasons for them. Initially, the focus will be on quality and getting providers' access and participation plans 'back on track' following the disruption. Further information on this is expected in July.
It is recognised that the disruption caused by the pandemic means that many institutions will struggle to meet normal data submission deadlines and that any data which is submitted could be distorted. Even so, the expectation remains that providers will continue to make data returns, with the deadline for provider profile data falling on 13 July and the Unistats and Graduate Outcomes Survey data deadlines falling on 18 and 21 August respectively. Any provider which believes it has a legitimate reason to request more time is invited to apply for an extension. Further information about future deadlines will be released in July.