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The Office for Students proposes tougher measures to protect students if universities run into financial trouble

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students

@OfficeStudents – Universities and other higher education providers facing the greatest financial risks will need to put in place arrangements to protect students in the event that they have to close, under new proposals announced by England’s higher education regulator today (17 Jul). 

The Office for Students (OfS) is consulting on a new targeted condition of registration that would allow it to intervene more quickly in cases where universities or colleges are at material risk of closure. 

Today’s proposals reflect the fact that – with 396 registered universities and other higher education providers in England – some may close or cease providing higher education even in normal times. But the challenging circumstances created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic mean that some providers will experience particular financial difficulties and so the risk to students is currently increased. The implementation of proposals set out today would help ensure the protection of students on an ongoing basis, both during and after the pandemic.  

Under the proposals, the OfS would be able to require universities and colleges to comply with specific directions to take action to protect students. Measures to protect students in these circumstances could include: 

  • continuing to teach existing students before closing 
  • making arrangements to transfer students to appropriate courses at other universities and colleges 
  • awarding credit for partially completed courses and awarding qualifications where courses have been completed 
  • offering impartial information, advice and guidance to students on their options and next steps 
  • enabling students to make complaints and apply for refunds or compensation where appropriate 
  • archiving records so that students can access evidence of their academic attainment in the future. 

The new condition would apply in addition to the existing requirements all universities and colleges must meet on an ongoing basis to remain registered with the OfS, but those in good financial health would not have to take any additional action to satisfy it. 

Commenting, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said: 

‘Our regulatory approach has extended the protection available to students if their course, campus or provider closes. We had intended to consult on measures to strengthen our ability to protect students, including from the consequences of provider closure. But with financial risk heightened during the pandemic, it has become clear that we need to prioritise some elements of those plans. Nobody wants a university or college to run into financial trouble, but where this happens, it is vital that students are able to complete their studies with as little disruption as possible and receive proper credit for their achievements. 

‘This proposed condition would ensure that we are able to act swiftly and decisively where there is a material risk of closure. We have been clear that, as a regulator, we wish to reduce unnecessary burden on higher education providers. For the vast majority of universities and colleges that are in a sound financial position, these changes will not have any effect. 

‘This is a carefully targeted and proactive measure to protect students, particularly during these uniquely challenging times. Where universities and colleges are at material risk of closure, we will ensure that our focus is on the needs of students.’ 

‘Consultation on student protection directions’ is attached and will be published on the OfS website at 0001 on Friday 17 July 2020.  

The proposals do not apply to further education colleges and sixth form colleges that are subject to the special administration regime in place for further education. 

The Consultation on student protection directions runs from Friday 17 July to Friday 11 September 2020.  

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