As we approach the new academic year

Some coronavirus-related considerations for the 2021/22 academic year.

Student in mask sitting at desk in class

As we approach another new academic year we hope it will be helpful to draw together some coronavirus-related considerations and thoughts from our guidance for providers and students that are particularly relevant at the moment.

Some thoughts for providers

The situation remains very challenging for providers, students, and prospective students and it is difficult to predict how things will develop over the autumn and through the winter. With this level of uncertainty, it’s all the more important for providers to continue to listen to and work with current and prospective students to understand and take into account what is important to them as they prepare for the autumn. Students will need clear information about their providers’ plans so that they can make informed decisions and understand what to expect. This should include information about what will happen in different scenarios, for example if restrictions are re-introduced, although it won’t be possible to predict every situation that might arise. Providers will need to keep students updated with any changes.

Providers need to consider carefully how best to support new students to adjust to higher education this year. Students’ mental health is a major concern and supporting students effectively must be a high priority. Those coming from school sixth forms and further education colleges will have had their experience and learning disrupted and may need additional support. Many international students find the transition difficult and this year they will have additional practical challenges with travelling, self-isolating, and integrating into the provider’s community.

As well as the enormous challenges and disruption, some of the changes made as a result of the pandemic have brought some benefits. For example, some students have found it easier to access learning because of changes made to enable teaching to be delivered online. It is important that where accessibility has improved, this is recognised and carried forward into future provision. Providers should work with their students to ensure that blended learning is fully accessible to all.

Arrangements that might work well for many students may not work for all. Providers should be proactive about identifying and supporting students who may need additional help, for example those with learning or processing differences, mental health difficulties, caring responsibilities or difficulties accessing equipment or suitable workspaces.

Providers need to deliver teaching and learning opportunities and other services that are consistent with students’ reasonable expectations. Returning students will already have coped with the disruption to the 2020/21 academic year and some will have been affected by the disruption in 2019-20 as well. They may not have had the practical experience or learnt skills that they otherwise would have. It will be important to make sure that those students have the opportunity to retrieve their position so that they can make up for what they have missed. Where providers find that they can’t do this, they will need to consider how to put that right.

Providers will also be facing significant demands on their resources. The complaints and appeals functions may feel like less of a priority. But many students have real concerns about how the ongoing situation has or might affect their studies and providers need to engage with those concerns. For many providers there will be a lot of pressure on finance and staff, but providers should not undervalue support and advice services when making difficult decisions about resources. Alongside an engaged and effective students’ union or other student body, those support and advice services will play a crucial role in resolving students’ concerns.

We are aware that some providers are facing industrial action. This can have a cumulative impact on students who have already experienced disruption as a result of the pandemic. Providers may find it helpful to refer to our guidance on handling complaints arising from significant disruption and information relating to complaints arising from industrial action.

What can students do if they have concerns?

It is very important that students talk to their provider about their concerns as soon as possible, as many issues can be resolved informally. Students’ unions and student representative bodies can often be a valuable source of advice. If concerns can’t be resolved informally, the student should make a complaint using their provider’s complaints processes. We expect students to engage with their provider’s internal complaints process before they bring a complaint to us because it is better for everyone if the provider can put things right for the student directly.

Students can find further guidance in our coronavirus FAQ for students.

Where do we come in?

If the student is still unhappy after the provider has considered their concerns then they can complain to us and we will consider their concerns independently and impartially. It is clearly important that everyone is realistic about what is possible in the context of the ongoing impact of the pandemic and any public health restrictions that may still be needed. But it is equally important that students are treated fairly. As an ombuds body we look at what the provider has done, or not done, whether it has followed fair procedures, and whether it has acted reasonably in all the circumstances.