Don’t use online learning to cut costs, HE minister warns vice-chancellors

Michelle Donelan wrote to vice-chancellors to say students expect universities to offer lots of in-person campus experiences this academic year

Michelle Donelan has written to vice-chancellors, telling them universities “should not be limiting face-to-face learning, or other activities, based on Covid-19 restrictions”.

Ms Donelan thanked “all those” who have implemented “a significant return” to in-person teaching but warned she continued to hear “too many concerns” from students that feel too much of their timetable is online. “Online learning should not be used to cut costs and should not reduce the quality of your offer,” her letter emphasised.

The minister for higher and further education told vice-chancellors she understood they would “decide what emphasis to put on remote teaching independently, after listening to and prioritising the needs of their student body”. However, she said students “rightly expect” universities to deliver “a full and dynamic teaching and learning experience”.

The minister said online alternatives were permissible to “enhance students’ academic experience”, increase accessibility for those unable to attend in-person sessions and free-up in-person sessions for “higher-quality, interactive” teaching.

Disadvantaged students, “who may lack pre-existing networks and sources of support”, benefit the most from the chance to access support and build friendship groups when attending university in person, she opined.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that 90% of students have received at least one part of a Covid-19 vaccine; 78% have received both. Cases in HE settings “have remained low” as a result, the minister said. She asked university leaders to encourage students to take regular asymptomatic tests twice a week.

Ms Donelan said she would do all she could to resolve any issues for universities hoping to organise pop-up vaccination centres with local public health teams and to address “outstanding concerns relating to the recognition of international students’ vaccine status”.

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