The Office for Students has promised students it is “actively monitoring” universities that are teaching online, amid questions from MPs about the regulator’s ability to safeguard teaching standards during the pandemic.
The English higher education regulator said it would follow up directly with individual universities “where we receive notifications from students, parents or others raising concerns about the quality of teaching on offer”.
The OfS said it was “directly engaging with universities… that have moved to Public Health England’s tier 3″ and would “ensure that they will maintain the quality of their provision”.
University Business understands that all universities in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield are currently operating under tier 3 restrictions, but none are at tier 4. UB asked the OfS to confirm which universities were in tier 3, but a spokesperson said they were unable to release that information publicly. The University and College Union (UCU) has complained that universities in areas with high Covid-19 transmission rates have been too slow to reduce in-person provision.
“We are actively following-up on reportable events and notifications. Where we have significant concerns, we may investigate further, for example, by calling in evidence from a provider, or commissioning expert onsite investigations or reviews. We may also commission polling targeted at the students of a particular provider where our monitoring activity suggests there may be concerns,” the OfS said.
Where we have significant concerns, we may investigate further, for example, by calling in evidence from a provider, or commissioning expert onsite investigations or reviews
– The Office for Students
The OfS told UB it was not currently actively investigating any notifications but is in “conversation” with “a small number” of institutions about their response to local lockdown. A spokesperson for the regulator declined to comment when asked what would constitute grounds for an investigation.
Two of the OfS’ stated actions – monitoring data on dropout rates and requiring universities to report when they can no longer deliver a course or qualification – are already part of the regulator’s established monitoring procedures. Moving to tier 3 or 4 is not a required reportable event by the OfS.
The Department for Education set out on 10 September a four-tiered approach to restrictions for universities affected by local lockdowns. According to the guidelines, developed in conjunction with Public Health England, the DfE expects universities in tier 1 provide blended learning with face-to-face tuition. It expects universities in tier 2 to “move to an increased level of online learning where possible”, those in tier 3 to “increase the level of online learning to retain face-to-face provision for priority courses” and for those in “last resort” tier 4 it expects “the majority of provision to be online”.
Decisions on tiers are taken by directors of local public health, in conjunction with affected universities.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan said she saw “no reason why students should see a reduction in contact hours” if their teaching moved online, adding: “If there are concerns, the OfS has the powers to take action. It is also vital that every single student has access to the resources they need to study remotely, regardless of their background.”
Ms Donelan said the government had pledged £256 million to assist universities; in fact, this assistance comes from funds intended for widening participation projects in the 2020/21 academic year.
It is the second time the regulator has sought to reassure students it is actively monitoring teaching standards in as many weeks. On 28 September, the OfS chief executive warned it “will be following up with individual universities and colleges where we have concerns about the arrangements they are making for teaching and academic support”.
During an accountability hearing of the education select committee this week with universities minister Michelle Donelan, Tom Hunt questioned: “Specifically what [the OfS’s] responsibility has been over the last three weeks and whether they’ve taken on enough responsibility”.
During a May hearing of the education select committee, MPs challenged the OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge and chairman Sir Michael Barber on the regulator’s role in monitoring distance learning during the lockdown. Speaking to Dandridge in the virtual committee hearing, select committee chair Robert Halfon said: “You’ll have heard my questions in the session before about whether or not surveys are being done as to how many university students are accessing online education. Are you doing that now? Are you looking at the individual quality of online education provided by those universities and how they’re helping disadvantaged students?”
Not satisfied with the answers provided by either Dandridge or Sir Michael, Mr Halfon later said: “What I’m not clear about from your answers is how you are literally holding the institutions to account in this regard, specifically in terms of disadvantaged students.”