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Universities may rush to reopen campuses when it is ‘dangerous’, MPs told

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

Universities in the UK could rush to reopen campuses when it is still unsafe to do so amid increased competition to attract students, MPs have been told.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), warned that leaving the decision to institutions could be “dangerous” as financial pressures could encourage them to reopen prematurely.

The Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator, has urged universities not to make any promises to students that everything will be back to normal in the autumn term if this is not the case.

Addressing a virtual Education Select Committee, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive at the OfS, said students should be told what kind of experience they will receive in advance of accepting offers.

Speaking during the same hearing, Dr Grady called for firmer Government guidance on universities fully reopening campuses to students next term to prevent some universities from rushing to reopen.

She said: “They will be wanting to promise students that there’ll be reopening next semester in order to attract those students rather than them go somewhere else.”

Dr Grady told MPs: “The idea that we can just sort of leave what that guidance should look like to numerous different universities, when they’re also in competition with each other to try and attract students, I think, would be incredibly dangerous.”

She reiterated calls for universities to be given more Government funding to reduce any rise in competition and the financial pressures if students choose to cancel or defer places in the autumn.

Addressing MPs, Ms Dandridge admitted that nobody knows exactly what is going to happen in the autumn with universities due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But she said: “What we are requiring is that universities are as clear as they can be to students so that students, when they accept an offer from a university, know in broad terms what they’ll be getting.

“What we don’t want to see is promises that it’s all going to be back to usual and on campus experience when it turns out that’s not the case.”

“I think the important thing here is absolute clarity to students so they know what they’re getting in advance of accepting offers,” she added.

The OfS says it expects universities to provide clarity before students make a firm choice in June – and certainly before the start of the clearing process.

Universities should update students as soon as plans change and allow them to change their minds.

MPs also heard concerns about the experience of current students during the Covid-19 crisis.

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, told MPs that the regulator had been alerted to one university which had put out guidance that said students without laptops should take a leave of absence.

The watchdog raised it with the institution and they said the guidance was in error and they corrected it.
Ms Dandridge added: “I think what we’re likely to see this autumn is much greater and more sophisticated use of blended learning so that’s face-to-face plus online.”

“I entirely agree that that cannot just be bunging lectures online.”

“It’s got to be more sophisticated than that.”

“And I suspect that’s what we’re going to be seeing much more of over the course of the next year.”

“We’ll be monitoring the outcomes from that.”

The president of the National Union of Students (NUS) called for students to have the ability to have their tuition fees reimbursed as they have gone through a “traumatic experience” amid Covid-19.

Zamzam Ibrahim, president of the NUS, said: “There’s no surprise that a lot of students have had issues with online learning.”

“There’s no surprise that a lot of students feel like the quality of education has gone down massively.”

“That is no fault of the academics – but it is a concern that a lot of students are facing.”

She added that a lot of young people are “living on food banks to survive” and undergraduates are worried about keeping “a roof over their head” during the Covid-19 crisis.

During the hearing, which addressed financial concerns being felt by students and staff, Tory MP Robert Halfon, chair of the select committee, described some vice chancellors’ salaries as “a bit obscene” and he highlighted that some university leaders sit on their own remuneration committees.

In response to the questioning, Debra Humphris, chair of the University Alliance, said she believed that the practice of university bosses sitting on their own remuneration committees “should stop.”