Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students

The @OfficeStudents (OfS) has said in its annual review today (3 Dec) that Universities and colleges in England should take the opportunity to radically improve digital teaching and learning as they continue to negotiate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

While the review notes how universities have worked hard to adapt their teaching and learning practices as a result of lockdown restrictions, the pandemic has ‘exacerbated’ existing inequalities – particularly with regard to digital poverty.

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, says in his foreword:

 The area most obviously and radically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic has been the delivery of teaching and learning. In spring this year, universities and colleges shifted to online teaching with impressive speed. I have been told that in some cases more progress was made in a month than in the previous five years. My review of digital teaching and learning, due to report in early 2021, 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.

 This will require us collectively to ensure no student suffers from digital poverty; that every provider takes a whole-institution, strategic approach to digital transformation; and that opportunities to take teaching and learning to a new level are seized through ongoing dialogue with students. The pandemic forced a radical shift to online delivery; the disruptions and challenges involved will only be truly worthwhile if they lead to opportunities seized.”

James Turner, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, said:

“The pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to the higher education sector this year, with universities having to rapidly shift to online learning. While this has been a challenging time, the move to digital delivery has also provided opportunities to innovate. We were able to move all our access programmes online this summer through Sutton Trust Online, which allowed us, working alongside our university partners, to support more disadvantaged young people than ever before.

“However, we mustn’t forget that increased digital teaching and learning will widen existing inequalities if only some students are able to access it. Our own research from May found that working class students were twice as likely as their better-off peers to say they didn’t have adequate access to technology to carry on their studies.  

“A strong focus on the digital divide in higher education must be maintained as online learning grows, and so it is absolutely right that the Office for Students will focus on tackling digital poverty in its review.”

 The report on digital teaching and learning, led by Sir Michael Barber, will look at how high-quality digital provision can be continued and delivered at scale; consider the impact of digital poverty; and explore how digital technology has been used to deliver remote education since the pandemic started. It will make recommendations for the year 2020-21 and look to the longer term future.

nicola dandridge100x100In her commentary for the annual review, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, says that universities should to work towards ‘maximising the potential of digital teaching,’ noting the challenges that students have faced this year: 

“Maintaining teaching quality and academic standards is at the heart of our regulatory role, and this has been even more important during the pandemic. As the transition to digital learning took place, many students faced unprecedented challenges in accessing lectures, tutorials and wider support. We have been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on certain groups of students: international students, postgraduates and students who are vulnerable by reason of disability or for other reasons.”

She continues:

“Since the start of the pandemic, most universities and colleges have adopted some form of remote teaching and learning. This shift to online provision has been driven by necessity, but also creates huge opportunities.”

Student polling previously published by the Office for Students shows that during the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown:

  • 52 per cent of students said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection, with 8 per cent ‘severely’ affected
  • 71 per cent reported lack of access to a quiet study space, with 22 per cent ‘severely’ impacted and
  • 56 per cent said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials, with 9 per cent ‘severely’ impacted.

The review offers a comprehensive view of the higher education sector in England, including universities’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. It also maps out priority areas for the OfS in the year ahead. As well as working with universities to tackle digital poverty, the regulator will also focus on raising on the bar on quality and standards. Ms Dandridge writes:

   “Poor-quality courses should be improved or no longer offered. The consultation published in November proposes a series of measures to define, monitor and take action regarding the quality and standards of courses that do not reach minimum requirements.”

She continues:

“Our proposals would ensure that providers that recruit students from underrepresented groups and with protected characteristics are held to the same minimum level of performance as other providers, and would see consideration given to outcomes at subject level within providers, as well as at the level of the whole provider. We expect to consult further on our approach to baseline quality in due course.”

The final priority for the year ahead will focus on improving opportunities for mature students. Ms Dandridge writes:

   During 2021, we expect to see more demand from adults to study in higher education for retraining as we move out of the pandemic. This is a trend we need to encourage, not least as a way of ensuring that a highly skilled graduate workforce can support our national, regional and local economies, as they emerge from the impact of the pandemic and adapt to life outside the European Union. New advanced learning loans will make learning more affordable for adults without A-levels. At the same time, there are more opportunities for mature students in areas like nursing.

“2021 should be a year when we look more seriously at how courses could be made more attractive and responsive to mature students, and a year when more adults are encouraged to take up such opportunities.”

Review of digital teaching and learning in higher education

The OfS is currently completing a review of digital teaching and learning in higher education. The review will consider the impact of digital poverty; how digital technology has been used to deliver remote education since the pandemic started; how high-quality digital teaching and learning can be delivered at scale in the future; and the opportunities that digital education presents for universities in medium and long term. It will draw on examples of successful online teaching from the UK and overseas, particularly in the lockdown.

Raising the bar on quality and standards in higher education

In November, the OfS launched a consultation setting initial proposals to raise the bar on quality and standards in higher education. The proposals also include new definitions of quality and standards which set out what universities, colleges and other higher education providers would need to do to satisfy the OfS’s conditions of registration. These new definitions, and the other proposals set out in the consultation, are designed to provide a minimum level of protection for all students – whatever and however they are studying – at every university and other higher education provider registered by the OfS:

Student hardship funds and student and disabled student premium funding can be used to bolster Mental health support services

Universities and colleges are permitted to use their student and disabled student premium funding (as well as other recurrent grants not earmarked for specific purposes) to bolster their mental health support services to students and this includes funds specifically intended for student hardship.

In addition, OfS capital grants can be used to address the needs of individual students for remote access to learning, teaching, assessment and the related services of a provider, for example through the provision of equipment or connectivity services, where students would not otherwise be able to secure these.

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