The Office for Students (OfS) wants to encourage students and students’ unions in England to report poor quality teaching after it received only around 30 such reports since the first English lockdown in March.
In a briefing with journalists yesterday, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge explained how the regulator has “proactively monitored the quality of teaching and learning” during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Dandridge was speaking ahead of the publication of the regulator’s annual review, which lays out its programme for 2021, including details of the digital teaching and learning review led by out-going OfS chair Sir Michael Barber.
The small number of notifications received by the OfS since March relating to poor quality teaching is in contrast to the findings of an OfS survey of students, which suggests that 56% lacked access to “appropriate online course materials” and 34% were dissatisfied with the quality of teaching.
Ms Dandridge has repeatedly reassured MPs in recent months that the regulator was “actively monitoring” universities that are teaching online. In October, the English higher education regulator said it was monitoring universities “where we receive notifications from students, parents or others raising concerns about the quality of teaching on offer”.
The OfS told University Business it received “around 300 notifications” from students, parents, staff and interested parties since March covering all areas where regulation applies, such as university finances and offer-making, but only around 10% related to poor quality teaching and learning.
Spurred by this lack of engagement from learners, Ms Dandridge told reporters the regulator would work with students and student unions “to significantly improve how students can raise concerns with us about the quality of their teaching and support”.
She continued: “We want to encourage [students and students’ unions] over the next couple of months so that it becomes quite a meaningful dialogue, but in a way that is aligned to our regulatory powers, concerns and priorities.
“Where students or students’ unions have evidence that a university or college is not providing adequate teaching and learning, we will investigate. That will not only assist us in responding to specific issues but will give us a wider range of information about individual universities and colleges that can inform our regulation.”
The OfS cannot handle individual complaints, but the failure of a university to deliver good quality teaching is a breach of its registration commitments and could trigger an OfS investigation. Ms Dandridge said she was particularly concerned about the impact of online learning on international students, postgraduates and disabled students.
The regulator-in-chief noted, however, that many universities had succeeded in delivering good quality teaching during the pandemic and commended the vice-chancellor of UCL, who received a letter from student union representatives congratulating the whole institution on its digital transition.
With any innovation, in the first phase, there is a workload increase, because staff doing both the old and the new work. In the medium and long term, there is no reason why online teaching should lead to extra work
– Sir Michael Barber, Office for Students
The OfS annual review provided details of the upcoming online teaching review led by Sir Michael, set to be published early next year. The report will consider high-quality digital provision at scale; the impact of digital poverty; and the role of distance learning since the pandemic started. Said Sir Michael: “We will set out how we can learn the lessons from this shift and ensure digital provision becomes a significant contributor – in myriad ways – to high-quality teaching and learning.”
The OfS chair downplayed staff workload concerns, saying that staff and students are already benefitting from the efficiencies of online working. “With any innovation, in the first phase, there is a workload increase, because staff doing both the old and the new work. In the medium and long term, there is no reason why online teaching should lead to extra work,” he said.
The OfS annual review also identified three areas of primary interest for the regulator in 2021: the decline in mature students, digital poverty and raising standards.
The latter issue is the subject of an ongoing OfS review, which follows months of ministerial promises to clamp down so-called low-quality degrees. The OfS seeks to set “more challenging” baselines for student outcomes for all registered providers. A consultation document, outlining a series of proposed measures, proposes “new definitions of quality and standards” for admission procedures, course content, teaching, learning resources, academic support, student outcomes, qualification standards and career progression.