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OfS: Students must be ‘properly protected’ in online teaching

Regulator urges student protection but relaxes some requirements for universities

Universities must make sure students’ needs are “properly protected” if they are moving all teaching online as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Office for Students has said.

In a letter to vice-chancellors, seen by Research Professional News, OfS chief executive Nicola Dandridge stressed that the government had still not advised universities to close or stop face-to-face teaching, despite the growing number choosing to do so. At the moment, the regulator and Public Health England are still telling universities that they should remain open.

“Some universities and colleges have however decided to move to online teaching notwithstanding this advice, and it is important in these circumstances that the needs of their students are properly protected,” she wrote.

But Dandridge added the regulator “understand[s] the intense pressures you are under, and the uncertainties you are having to navigate” in responding to the coronavirus crisis. “At the Office for Students our role is to ensure that students’ interests are protected in this exceptional environment, and this continues notwithstanding Covid-19. However, we will be taking the unparalleled challenges that you are facing into account when applying our regulatory requirements.”

Many universities, including King’s College London, the University of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh, have decided to stop face-to-face teaching while some have closed buildings and research facilities.

Dandridge said routine requests for information from the OfS and planned consultations will be put on hold to ease the burden on universities. Ongoing consultations—such as the consultation into sexual abuse and harassment in higher education—are likely to see deadlines extended.

Universities were set to receive revised guidance on reportable events from the OfS director of competition and registration Susan Lapworth, and Dandridge said the OfS would be communicating directly with vice-chancellors on developments around government advice for universities as the pandemic evolves.

On 9 March the OfS wrote to vice-chancellors asking for updates on the number of confirmed and suspected coronavirus cases among students and staff, and how universities were dealing with diagnoses.

The Department for Education has set up a helpline to answer questions relating to Covid-19. The number is 0800 046 8687.