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OfS seeks power to intervene when universities close

Image: Jason [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

England’s regulator seeks assurances from universities about student protection plans

The Office for Students has proposed a condition of registration it says would help protect students if a registered provider closed. 

The condition would allow England’s higher education regulator to intervene more quickly if universities or colleges were at “material risk of closure”. According to a report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies earlier this month, 13 universities are at risk of becoming insolvent as a result of the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic

In a statement announcing today’s consultation, the Office for Students said that while institutions “may close or cease providing higher education even in normal times”, the “challenging circumstances created by the coronavirus pandemic mean that some providers will experience particular financial difficulties”.

Under the proposals, the OfS would be able to require registered universities to undertake specific actions designed to protect students. These include continuing to teach existing students before closing, making arrangements to transfer students to “appropriate courses at other universities and colleges” and enabling students to apply for refunds or compensation where appropriate. 

Institutions should also award credit for any partially completed courses, qualifications where courses have been completed, and ensure that impartial information, advice and guidance is made available to students on their possible next steps. 

Universities would be required to meet the new condition “on an ongoing basis” to remain on the OfS register, and the regulator said those “in good financial health would not have to take any additional action to satisfy it”. 

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said the regulator had always intended to consult on measures “to strengthen our ability to protect students, including from the consequences of provider closure”, but with financial risk heightened because of Covid-19 “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,” she said. “This proposed condition would ensure that we are able to act swiftly and decisively where there is a material risk of closure.”

Dandridge added that the OfS wished to “reduce unnecessary burden” on higher education institutions and that for most universities and colleges the changes “will not have any effect”. 

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

Yesterday, the Department for Education outlined its “restructuring regime”, detailing conditions the government might impose on universities in England that seek state assistance if they become financially insolvent as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic