Consider refunds if standards slipped this year, OfS advises universities

The regulator of universities in England revealed it has only received around 30 complaints from students since March

The Office for Students has told universities in England to consider tuition fee rebates in the event of slipping standards, after receiving reports some providers have failed to deliver teaching and assessments as promised or gave students vague assurances about the 2020-21 academic year.

The Office for Students (OfS) director of regulation, Susan Lapworth, wrote to university leaders, urging them to “re-test” what promises they made to students ahead of the 2020-21 academic year.

In her communique, Ms Lapworth said the OfS had received reports from students that universities “were not clear about what had been promised, or that what was promised has not been delivered in practice”.

The OfS told University Business in early December that it had received just 30 reports from students on teaching quality and standards since the first English lockdown in March – as of 15 January, the regulator said it had not received many more. It stressed it was monitoring the situation via “engagement with the NUS, social media, student panels and from calls through the public enquiries line”.

If universities consider that they have fallen short of expectations, or made nebulous assurances to applicants, the higher education regulator in England recommended they “actively consider your obligations under consumer law for refunds or other forms of redress”.

Although the OfS cannot compel universities to offer refunds, Ms Lapworth said her team would contact universities based on reports from students and “want to discuss” plans for refunds with senior leaders. The OfS said it would not penalise universities for following public health advice.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded last year that refunding tuition fees would only benefit the highest-earning graduates and government coffers. The higher education ombudsman for England and Wales is in the midst of a consultation on its plans to allow groups of students to submit complaints about a university – the results of this Office for the Independent Adjudicator consultation might make it easier for students to lodge complaints and seek refunds.

Amid growing clamour among students’ unions for no-detriment policies for this year’s assessments and examinations, the OfS backed universities that have opted against implementing them.

The regulator said it was at universities’ discretion to decide how to manage examinations and degree standards – adding that other forms of safety net standards should “secure” academic standards and offer protections to students with protected characteristics.

Students’ unions (SUs), including the Aldwych Group of Russell Group SUs, have launched campaigns calling for no-detriment policies that acknowledge that all students have been adversely affected by the impacts of the pandemic this year.

The OfS letter said that the ban on some offer-making practices remains in place – it added that the deadline for its quality and standards consultation is extended until 19 January 2021.

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