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OfS freezes normal regulatory requirements during pandemic

Image: Isaac Bowen [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Regulator pauses list of requirements as universities struggle with coronavirus

A slimmed-down list of regulatory requirements designed to help universities weather the coronavirus pandemic has been unveiled by the Office for Students.

While universities face upheaval due to the pandemic, England’s regulator will focus on managing immediate risks to institutions and students and its usual list of reportable events—including breaches to student protection plans and changes to governance—will be paused.

Instead, universities will be expected to report “short-term threats to [their] financial viability”, especially problems with liquidity. They must tell the OfS if courses are stopped or suspended without offering an alternative for students, or if they are unable to award qualifications or credits to students.

Most conditions of registration are also suspended, and enhanced monitoring has been paused unless it relates specifically to financial sustainability.

In a letter to vice-chancellors on 26 March, OfS director of competition and registration Susan Lapworth said the changes to regulatory requirements were “temporary but open-ended by nature” as they “take place in a context where we do not know how long disruption will last”. But she cautioned the OfS might “revise our requirements as the situation changes and as our understanding of the position of individual providers and the sector as a whole develops”.

Universities must “make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies, for achievement to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely, and to enable a fair and robust admissions process for 2020-21 entrants,” Lapworth said.

Regulatory action will only be taken where the OfS feels universities have not tried hard enough or where standards have been compromised. But Lapworth repeated that universities should not be making unconditional offers at the moment, which the OfS has already told vice-chancellors.

Standard regulatory requirements will come back into force when disruption from the pandemic has improved enough to allow normal work to resume, and the OfS will expect “full compliance” with its full list of regulatory requirements once again.

It comes after the Coronavirus Bill, which passed through parliament on 25 march, gave the OfS the power to ignore its conditions for registration for universities.

A more detailed analysis of the OfS’s regulatory changes can be found in today’s 8am Playbook.