As I set out in a letter to MPs on 9 October and in a letter to Vice-Chancellors on 2 November, the government’s clear and stated expectation is that, whether providers are delivering face-to-face, online or blended provision, the quality and quantity of tuition, and accessibility for all students, is maintained. The OfS has made it clear that all higher education providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and standards, which set out requirements to ensure that courses are high-quality, that students are supported and achieve good outcomes and that standards are protected. They have also set out that providers must continue to provide sufficient and appropriate facilities, learning resources and student support services to deliver a high-quality academic experience.
Higher education providers must continue to comply with their legal obligations under the Equality Act (2010), ensuring that education and learning is accessible to all students. When making changes to the delivery of their courses, higher education providers need to consider how to support all students, particularly the most vulnerable, to achieve successful academic and professional outcomes.
The OfS is taking very seriously the potential impacts of COVID-19 on teaching and learning and is regularly engaging with all registered providers. It is actively monitoring those providers which have moved provision predominantly online due to COVID-19 restrictions to ensure: that they maintain the quality of their provision, that it is accessible for all and that they have been clear in their communications with students about how arrangements for teaching and learning may change throughout the year. The OfS is also following up directly with providers where they receive notifications from students, parents or others raising concerns about the quality of teaching on offer and requiring providers to report to them when they are not able to deliver a course or award a qualification. If the OfS has concerns, it will investigate further.
The government is aware of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on some students. That is why the government has already worked closely with the OfS to help clarify that providers can draw upon existing funding to increase hardship funds and support disadvantaged students impacted by COVID-19. Providers can use the funding, worth around £256 million for the academic year 2020/21, starting from August, towards student hardship funds, including the purchase of IT equipment or connectivity services where students would not otherwise be able to secure these. On 2 December, we announced that the government will also be making available up to £20 million of hardship funding on a one-off basis to support those that need it most, particularly disadvantaged students.
Students have rights under consumer law that they may be able to rely on if they are dissatisfied with their provider’s response to COVID-19. In the first instance, students should speak to their provider to see if they can resolve their issue. We expect student complaints and appeals processes to be operated flexibly, accessibly, and sympathetically by providers to resolve any concerns. If a student at a provider in England or Wales is not satisfied with their provider’s final response, they can make a complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which has published guidance on this issue, available at: https://www.oiahe.org.uk/students/.