Speaking during the IHE 2020 Policy Live event in a keynote address, Dandridge said that students at UK universities are facing issues around communication, changes in provision, accommodation and meeting self isolation requirements. 

“We will be asking and looking at what arrangements are being made to support international students,”

She spoke about the measures that the OfS is taking to ensure quality of provision, as well as the potential role that consumer protection laws may play in quality assurance. 

“When we’re talking to individual providers, we will as a matter of course, be asking and looking at what arrangements are being made, to support international students. 

“I think particularly in some of the more awful circumstances, where they’re having to self isolate, having only just arrived in this country [which is] really grim… We are looking at that quite closely,” she said. 

“We have been talking about this both in the context of Coronavirus, but more generally about whether our regulation should specifically consider the experience of international students simply because of their significance to the sector in so many different ways,” she added 

During the address, Dandridge spoke about the issues faced by both international and national students at UK universities and colleges. 

One of the concerns we are consistently hearing from students and also from our discussions with providers, is that there continues to be issues about communications and students saying and thinking that they’re not being communicated with effectively or in a timely way about changes to provision,” she said.  

She explained that students are also reporting “major issues about their living arrangements, about accommodation and support, when they are isolating”. 

She said that these issues generally fall outside, the OfS’ regulatory remit. “This is difficult because they are issues of such concern for students in their day-to-day life,” she added. 

The issue of exactly how the OfS regulates was discussed, with Dandridge explaining that the organisation’s oversight of quality changed during the pandemic, to accommodate for the unprecedented situation institutions found themselves in. 

“We said that providers should make all reasonable efforts to enable students to complete their studies for achievements to be reliably assessed, for qualifications to be awarded securely and to enable a fair and robust admissions process for entrance to courses in 2021. 

“We do not expect to take any regulatory action where we consider the reasonable efforts have been made to protect the interests of students and where standards have not been compromised,” she said. 

“There may be at least a prima facie breach of contract and a breach of consumer protection regulations”

However, she noted that the quality of provision offered by universities and colleges may not just be a question for the OfS- consumer protection laws may also apply. 

Dandridge said that consumer protection is a “huge” and “challenging” issue. 

“We define our approach to quality, whereas consumer protection has got very clear legislative underpinning. 

“It’s not a context that we’ve created where we can flex our approach. We’re talking about contractual rights here and statutory rights under consumer protection legislation as expanded upon by the CMA guidelines. And all of that exists independently of the OfS.

“So where students are not getting what they signed up to, [or] not getting what they expected there may be at least a prima facie breach of contract and a breach of consumer protection regulations, albeit that the steps that universities and colleges have taken will have mitigated the impact of the breach either entirely or to a greater or lesser extent,” she said.

“Many students are really struggling to work from home”

As well as looking into regulatory requirements around international students, the OfS is exploring the issue of digital poverty.

“That’s exacerbated by socioeconomic background… many students are really struggling to work from home when previously they would have gone into college to study,” Dandridge said.

The OfS will produce a report on digital poverty in the new year. This work will inform future regulation around digital online provision.

In September, the OfS published the results of a survey of 1,416 students, which sought to find out their views on how teaching, learning and assessment was affected during lockdown.

The poll found that during the coronavirus lockdown, 52% of students said their learning was impacted by slow or unreliable internet connection, with 8% ‘severely’ affected.

Some 71% reported lack of access to a quiet study space, with 22% ‘severely’ impacted and 56% said they lacked access to appropriate online course materials, with 9%‘severely’ impacted.

The study found that 18% of respondents were impacted by lack of access to a computer, laptop or tablet.

“There remain a significant number of students whose access to remote education is being disrupted – sometimes severely – by poor access to core digital infrastructure,” Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, said, when the poll results were published.

“There remains critical progress to be made in closing persistent gaps in broadband speeds between urban and rural areas,” he added.

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