Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration of the Office for Students

Universities and colleges should continue to do all they can to maintain the quality of courses and the credibility of qualifications during the pandemic, @OfficeStudents said today (3 Apr).

In new updated guidance, the English higher education regulator sets out principles to provide flexibility to universities and colleges as they support the interests of their students during disruption caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The OfS acknowledges that many universities and colleges have moved rapidly to develop new ways of delivering courses through online teaching and alternatives to traditional end-of-course exams. The new guidance is intended to support these efforts.

The OfS recently announced substantially reduced regulatory requirements for universities and colleges during the pandemic. All must continue to meet ongoing conditions related to the quality of their courses and the standard of qualifications they award, but they have significant latitude to decide how best to do this. During this time universities and colleges should:

  • make all reasonable efforts to provide teaching and support for students that is broadly equivalent to normal arrangements. They should consider how online teaching can be used to deliver existing courses, as well as suitable mitigations where this is not possible 
  • assess students’ achievement reliably but flexibly, with qualifications awarded on the basis of evidence of student achievement. This may include reducing the number of assessments, making changes to the form of assessments, or deferring them to a later date
  • ensure that their approach to making reasonable adjustments for students with a disability remain appropriate and effective
  • in all circumstances, they should provide regular and clear communications to students to explain how remaining or ongoing teaching and assessment will be delivered.

Susan Lapworth, Director of Competition and Registration of the Office for Students, said:

'Universities and colleges, like the rest of society, are responding to an extraordinarily difficult set of circumstances. They have been moving rapidly to protect the interests of students as they deal with the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus outbreak. I have been impressed with their ingenuity and innovation. It is crucial they continue to focus on maintaining quality and securing standards during this period. 

'We expect universities and colleges to make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for their achievement to be reliably assessed and for qualifications to be awarded fairly. Despite the significant disruption being felt across the higher sector, students deserve appropriate support and recognition for their hard work and dedication.

'It is also important that the needs of vulnerable students are prioritised: this includes those with disabilities, health problems, learning difficulties, or who lack access to suitable learning resources and facilities. This is a challenging and uncertain time for students so universities and colleges should also consider what additional pastoral and mental health support they can offer to ensure that all students continue to benefit from a high-quality education.'

The OfS is not prescribing the specific steps universities and colleges must take to maintain teaching quality and reliable assessment. However, today’s guidance does include examples of effective practice from across the higher education sector, for example: 

  • The University of the Arts London (UAL) plans to develop an extensive online platform to show and celebrate students’ work in the summer, instead of a physical show. UAL also hopes to provide final year and postgraduate students with access to facilities later this year, after students have finished their courses, to allow students to final practical elements of work. 
  • The General Medical Council (GMC) has set out its plans to limit the impact of the pandemic on medical students. Where possible it asks medical schools to:
    • prioritise teaching and assessment for final-year students
    • work with local partners to make appropriate contingency arrangements
    • document any adjustments courses and planned assessments.
  • University College London (UCL) has cancelled planned assessments for all first-year undergraduates. Instead each student will be asked to complete a single piece of work on their leaning across the programme to date. These submissions must be of a satisfactory standard to progress to their second year of study.
  • At the University of Exeter, summer examinations will take one of three forms in recognition of differences between students: 
    • an open-book non-invigilated paper that must be completed within a specified 24-hour period
    • an open book non-invigilated paper that must be completed within a specified 24-hour period and with a fixed duration, adjusted to individual learning plans
    • an alternative coursework assessment taken over a number of weeks.

For more information please contact Richard Foord on 07795 257 382 or email [email protected].

See the guidance on quality and standards during the pandemic

The approaches and guidance from providers listed above is subject to change. Please check their websites for the latest information.

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OfS conditions on quality and standards are expressed as minimum baselines that all providers are required to meet, but the OfS does not prescribe how a provider should do so. This means that each provider is free to meet requirements in a way that it considers appropriate for the context in which it is operating. We expect only to take regulatory action where we consider that reasonable efforts have not been made or where standards have been compromised.

As part of our monitoring of universities and colleges during the pandemic we expect each provider to report to us if it intends or expects to cease teaching some or all of its courses to one or more groups of students.

In some cases it will not be possible for assessment to continue as originally planned. Providers will need to determine the extent to which each component of assessment is necessary to the award of credit or a qualification. This might include considering the removal of a component of assessment, revision of a component, substitution of a one component for another, or deferral of a component to a later date. 

If an awarding body is considering making changes to its degree classification algorithm as a direct response to the disruption caused by the pandemic, it must ensure such changes are reasonable. It should ensure that classifications are reliable and command public confidence and that students this year are treated equitably when compared with students from previous years. The OfS would expect to see a provider take reasonable steps to ensure that any changes to classification arrangements do not result in unwarranted grade inflation. The OfS is only likely to take regulatory action if it considers that a provider has deliberately or recklessly taken advantage of the current exceptional circumstances to increase the number of first or upper second class degrees it awards.

When making changes to the delivery of their courses, universities and colleges must also consider how they support all students, particularly the most vulnerable, to achieve academic and professional outcomes. Universities should particularly consider the needs and requirements of:

  • students from underrepresented groups, particularly in terms of access to resources, equipment and facilities to study 
  • students suffering from health problems relating to COVID-19 or who now have additional caring responsibilities 
  • students with specific learning difficulties who may be disadvantaged by alternative approaches to teaching or assessment.

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