Universities should consider offering tuition fee refunds to students where teaching has not been delivered as promised amid the pandemic, England’s higher education watchdog has said.
The Office for Students (OfS) has urged universities in England to review whether they provided students with “sufficiently clear” information about what teaching and assessment would look like in 2020-21.
If an institution concludes students were not adequately informed, the OfS says universities will be expected to consider their “obligations under consumer law for refunds or other forms of redress”.
The warning came as most university students in England have been told to stay at home and not return to campus until at least mid-February, which has sparked calls for greater financial support for students.
A number of universities have taken the decision to move lessons online until even later in the year amid the tighter restriction due to the pandemic.
Institutions may need to put on extra lectures or course content in light of the latest lockdown, the regulator has suggested.
The OfS is also encouraging universities to liaise with private accommodation providers to consider how they might support their students amid growing calls for rent rebates on empty rooms.
In a letter sent to universities on Thursday, Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the OfS, says: “If you conclude that new or returning students were not provided with sufficiently clear information about how teaching and assessment would be delivered in 2020-21, or that teaching and assessment were not delivered as promised, we expect you actively to consider your obligations under consumer law for refunds or other forms of redress.”
The intervention came after a letter from universities minister Michelle Donelan called on the OfS to reiterate that students should complain to their institutions “if they have concerns about the quality of course delivery”.
Ms Donelan added that students can raise the complaint with the Office for the Independent Adjudicator “if they remain unsatisfied”.
OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge said: “The pandemic is having a profound and ongoing impact on students who are still facing exceptional challenges.”
She added: “Of course, we understand the tremendous pressures that the new lockdown imposes on universities and colleges, and some may no longer be able to deliver the teaching and assessment arrangements that they said they would. This may not be in their direct control.
“However, in these circumstances they should do all they can to offer students alternatives – for instance by putting on extra lectures or course content later in the year – and where that is not possible, they should consider providing refunds where appropriate.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), said: “We recognise that the student experience this year is different, and it is more difficult for universities to offer the fuller experience within the restrictions imposed by government.
“Universities and their staff are doing all they can, under incredibly challenging and ever-changing circumstances, to offer teaching, resources, advice and support which will help students achieve their learning outcomes and progress throughout the year.
“Universities have invested significantly in online learning, Covid-secure facilities, mental health services, and financial assistance for those in greatest need. Universities will work with the Office for Students to ensure students are supported during the months ahead, but it is important that regulatory processes don’t make this already difficult situation more challenging.”