Strikes at a number of universities by members of the University and College Union began this week.
As the Office for Students (OfS), the regulator for higher education providers in England, it is not our role to take sides in these disputes. But it is our remit to ensure that universities comply with our registration conditions in order to minimise so far as is possible the impact of strike action on students.
We understand that many students’ unions may wish to be supportive of staff undertaking industrial action. At the same time, we know that SUs will want to make sure that students who are affected by the strike action are well supported and that universities are doing all they can to minimise the impact on their studies.
In order to register with us, universities have to comply with a number of conditions, including in relation to academic quality, standards, consumer protection law and effective management and governance. These conditions apply throughout any period of industrial action. We have published a briefing note setting out how these conditions may apply to disruption to students’ studies. In this way, we make clear to universities what our expectations are.
Our primary role at the OfS is to ensure that universities comply with their conditions of registration, and that extends equally to periods of industrial action. In practice this means making clear to universities that we expect them to take steps to minimise the impact of the strike action on students’ studies so far as possible, and to communicate clearly to students what arrangements are being put in place. These arrangements should also include making clear how students can pursue complaints. We can’t direct universities to take specific action, but we can and will intervene and take action if there is evidence that universities are in breach of our registration conditions.
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SUs can notify the OfS directly if they have concerns that universities are not protecting students’ interests and can use our briefing note as a guide to what we may be able to investigate. This may for instance relate to universities failing to follow their own procedures, not providing clear advice on how students can resolve issues or failing to take into account the needs of certain groups of students.
Our role is different from that of the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). We can’t deal with complaints from individual students – that is the role of the OIA. The OIA’s website contains valuable information for both students and SUs. We do however work closely with the OIA, for instance to share information, and if the OIA were to uphold large numbers of student complaints against a particular university, we might treat that as evidence of a breach of a registration condition.
More information on our role is available on our guidance page for students. This period of industrial action may be a stressful time for many staff and students. We acknowledge the critically important role that SUs will be doing to support their members, to resolve issues before they escalate and to provide advice and support when required. In turn, we will do all we can, working closely with the OIA and others, to ensure that students are protected so far as possible during this time.