University watchdog warns over online learning saying it will fine institutions which fail to deliver

 The university watchdog has issued a warning over online learning as it says it will fine institutions which fail to deliver for students.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, said it is “vital” that universities “honour the promises” they made to students when they applied.

She said that the regulator is “actively monitoring” the standard of online degrees, adding that where teaching moves online, universities must ensure that quality remains high.

The watchdog said it will investigate any complaints it receives about the quality of online learning, adding that it has the power to issue fines if it finds that universities have breached their conditions of registration.

Close to a quarter of a million students across the country are now being taught online, according to an analysis by The Telegraph, with Liverpool becoming the latest university to axe all face-to-face classes as cases.

Cases in the city have surged in recent weeks and tighter restrictions have been in place since last weekend which include a ban on social mixing between different households.

The university’s vice-Chancellor, Prof Dame Janet Beer, said: “We have moved to this position due to the high levels of Covid-19 in the city, and because we believe we can keep our students and staff safe at this level of operation.” Two other universities in the city – Liverpool John Moores and Liverpool Hope – moved all learning online last month.

In recent weeks Newcastle, Northumbria, Sheffield, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities have all taken the same step meaning that around 216,000 students are now taking their degrees from the confines of their bedroom.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, echoed the regulator’s warning over quality adding that courses should not reduce their teaching hours just because classes are move online.   

“From the start of this pandemic, we have been clear that universities must continue delivering a high quality academic experience,” she said.  

“We all know the benefits of face-to-face teaching but if universities move all teaching online, students should be assured that certain standards must be met.”  

On Friday Bristol University became the latest to suffer a major outbreak, with 40 students testing positive in one hall of residence and 300 told to self-isolate as a result.

Meanwhile, Durham’s pro vice-Chancellor apologised after self-isolating students complained they were left without a hot meal for six days and forced to go to bed hungry.

One student, who tested positive within days of arriving at the university, said her peers were not allowed to order in any supplies so had to rely on the food boxes provided by the university.

She described how the food boxes consisted of “parcels filled with junk food” and ready meals, adding: “We are in a catered college so normally you would be given hot meals every day that would be cooked for us.”

Durham University said it has now implemented a new hot food regime to replace food boxes after listening to feedback from students.

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