We have published a briefing note for providers which includes information on some things it may be helpful for providers to think about in terms of possible complaints arising from the coronavirus situation.
People are understandably worried about the current coronavirus pandemic, not only about how it might affect their health but about the disruption it is causing to education and businesses. This is a fast-moving situation and it is difficult to predict quite how serious and long-lasting the impact on higher education providers and their students is going to be. But we know that many providers and their students are already facing major challenges, and that a huge amount of thought and hard work is already going into managing those challenges.
The purpose of this briefing note is to flag some issues that are arising or might arise that could lead to complaints. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list, and many of the issues are common sense points that providers will already have thought of. But we hope it’s helpful to set out our thinking at this stage.
These challenges will be easier to navigate if providers discuss the situation with their students, working with them to find and implement solutions, and explaining to them, as far as possible, what they can expect.
Possible complaint scenarios
Halls of residence and accommodation
Providers close their halls of residence
Many providers are asking students to go home. If halls of residence have to be closed altogether, the provider may need to make special arrangements to provide accommodation for international students and other students who can’t travel home for any reason.
Some students may need to self-isolate in halls of residence. Special arrangements will need to be made for those students, for example, delivering meals and collecting rubbish. If other students are still living in the halls, providers may need to think about separate bathroom facilities, or regular deep cleaning.
This sort of isolation is likely to put a strain on anyone’s mental health and so, providers should consider how they can monitor and support students in this position, for example regular welfare checks by phone.
Students have to leave privately managed accommodation
Students in privately managed accommodation might need additional assistance if they are unable to remain in the accommodation.
Students can’t travel home
Some students may not be able to travel home for vacation periods or if the provider closes its facilities early. This problem is most likely to affect international students, but may also affect care leavers or others. The provider may need to extend their accommodation agreements or help the students find alternative accommodation. International students may need additional support with their visa requirements.
The provider cannot deliver teaching
Many providers have already stopped or reduced face-to-face teaching or are planning to do so. In these circumstances providers may be able to rely on the terms of a force majeure clause to avoid legal liability for failure to deliver their contractual obligations. This will depend on the wording of the force majeure clause and whether it meets the requirements of consumer law, the precise reason the provider is not able to deliver the teaching, and whether the provider has taken appropriate steps to mitigate the disruption.
Whether or not a force majeure clause can be relied on, we would expect to see providers taking reasonable steps to deliver whatever teaching they can so that the impact on their students is reduced as much as possible.
Some providers are already using online platforms to replace face to face teaching. Some companies have announced that they are making their platforms available to providers. It might be possible to livestream lectures (provided staff are available to deliver them). Smaller group teaching could also take place online. Tutorial or seminar groups could be merged or split to make this easier.
These measures are likely to depend on students having access to reliable fast broadband (and being able to use it), and separate arrangements will need to be made for those who don’t or can’t.
Other online resources (podcasts, recordings of previous lectures etc) could be used to make up for some missed sessions.
Any online resources need to be well-advertised so that students don’t miss out and know how to catch up on material they have missed.
Depending on the timetable, it might be possible to deliver teaching in a more intensive way.
Where a lot of teaching is missed, providers could consider extending term times later in the year. This may involve cancelling other events booked to use the providers’ facilities in vacation periods (if those have not already been cancelled). It may even become necessary to delay progression points. Any significant change to term or semester dates would need to be communicated to students as early as possible.
None of these suggestions provide ideal solutions. Delivering teaching in a shorter timeframe or extending the term into the summer vacation period is likely to pose significant difficulties for some, for example students who work part time to fund their studies, some disabled students, and staff members who undertake research in the summer, and those with caring responsibilities.
It’s important to keep full records of teaching that has been missed and what has been done to make up for it, and to explain to students that the alternative provision is designed to do this. These records will help providers to demonstrate the steps it took to try to minimise the impact of the disruption if students later complain to us.
The provider has to cancel exams
Traditional examination arrangements may fall victim to a social distancing policy. Exams may need to be postponed, for example to the resit period. If this is going to have to happen it’s important to let students know as soon as possible so that they and staff members can make the necessary arrangements.
It may be possible for some students who are self-isolating to sit exams in their accommodation. This might be difficult for exams that require invigilation, especially if staff numbers are reduced. It may be preferable to arrange a different assessment method, for example online assessments, or delay their exams. In some cases it may be possible to decide a student’s degree result or whether they can progress on the basis of work they have already completed.
Practical exams present a different set of problems. For performing arts students, the “live performance” element of assessments may need to be adjusted, for example, by changing the nature of the event or the size of the audience. In some cases, it might be possible to examine performances that have been video recorded.
Creative arts and performing students may miss out on opportunities to exhibit or showcase their work. It may be possible to rearrange these opportunities at a later date, even after graduation.
Practical exams in healthcare subjects may also need to be adjusted or postponed, especially if they are due to take place in a hospital or care home, or involve NHS staff.
Placement providers stop offering placements
Providers are likely to need to change or adjust existing or planned placement arrangements, within the constraints required by the relevant professional body. This might mean that students are placed in different environments to what they might have expected.
Students who need to complete a specified number of placement hours, such as social work and teaching students, may have their progression delayed, but it may be possible to complete other assessments out of order to reduce the delay.
Students in healthcare settings may find themselves being asked to do more than they might otherwise be expected to do, and providers will need to talk with the students and the placement providers about how to ensure that those students are kept safe.
School closures will have an impact in many different ways but will be particularly significant for SCITTS and their trainees. Where possible, SCITTS should try to discuss with trainees a likely closure, its duration and likely impact at an early stage.
Requests for special consideration
Students can’t sit exams or complete assessments, or their performance or preparation is affected by their health
Providers will need to relax any requirement that students submit medical evidence when requesting special consideration for illness or disruption to their studies.
Some students will choose to self-isolate because of a health condition that puts them at special risk, or because they are very anxious. Some students will have caring responsibilities that mean they have to take time away from their studies. Providers should treat these cases sympathetically.
Students studying abroad are affected by local restrictions
Students who are currently studying abroad may need additional support from their provider, for example because they have to self-isolate abroad or have difficulty in travelling home. It’s important that any student studying abroad knows how to access foreign office advice, and support from the local embassy, consulate or high commission.
Students who intend to study abroad have their plans disrupted
It’s important for providers to give advice and information as it emerges to students who were planning to travel abroad and whose plans are being disrupted. Travel might be delayed or, depending on the nature of the study opportunity, even cancelled altogether. In those cases providers should consider how the student’s learning opportunities have been affected and what other arrangements it might make to minimise the disadvantage to the student.
Students are victimised or abused by other students or members of the local community
In the early stages of the outbreak there were reports of some students being verbally abused and even assaulted by members of the public. It’s important for any student who has been the victim of such an assault or any other hate crime to be able to seek support from their provider. Providers may want to publicise information about reporting hate crimes and where students can seek support.
Communication and reassurance
Poor communication increases anxiety
Uncertainty can be a significant cause of anxiety. Clear, regular and frequent communication is therefore key, even where there isn’t much to say that is new. Students need to be reassured that, as far as possible, they will not be disadvantaged as a result of self-isolation, illness, or disruption to their course. Information about changes to exams, assessments, placements, and study opportunities should be up-dated regularly and publicised as much as possible. Engaging with students online for example through chat groups will help reduce anxiety and feelings of isolation. This may also need extra technical support.
Some students are more seriously affected than others
Some disabled students, for example students with a specific learning difference, mental health difficulties, autism, and some physical health conditions, are likely to be more seriously affected by disruption to their studies. These students may need additional support and communication that is tailored to their individual circumstances.
Arrangements for delivering teaching online or through other media need to be fully accessible for disabled students.
Consideration should be given to whether changes to assessment arrangements may affect these students more than others, for example because assessments are bunched together.
The provider’s student welfare systems are overwhelmed
Staff absences may affect providers’ student advice functions, support systems or students’ union advice centres. Providers should publish information about how staff absences are affecting these welfare services, and whether services are running or not. Where support services are seriously disrupted, providers should point students to other external sources of support or advice.
The provider can’t manage internal processes because of staff absences
If providers lose a number of staff members because of sickness or caring responsibilities, that is likely to affect its administration as well as teaching functions. We understand that this may well cause delays to complaints, academic appeals and other processes. It’s important to tell students when this becomes an issue and to keep them informed about how long their case is likely to take.
The provider can’t hold hearings because of staff absences or the student cannot attend
It may be possible for the provider to arrange hearings through online meeting software.
What we are doing
We are now working almost completely from home. Our case-handlers and support staff are fully equipped to work from home and many case-handlers do so routinely. Our Casework Support Team can deal with phone enquiries remotely. Case-handlers have complete remote access to our case-handling system and have “soft” phones to make and receive calls. This means that our case-work should not be significantly disrupted.
If a large number of our case-handlers are incapacitated because of illness or because of caring responsibilities this will have an impact on how quickly we can deal with enquiries and review complaints. We will keep students and our Points of Contact informed if this becomes a serious issue.
If providers or students need an extension to provide us with information we have asked for because of illness then we will be sympathetic.
Providers that have more significant difficulties because of the impact of coronavirus are asked to let us know so that our case-handlers can keep students informed.
As ever, it’s important to let us know if there is a particular reason why a case should be prioritised, for example because a practical solution is currently available but will be lost if the case is delayed, or because of the student’s health or personal circumstances.