DfE revises its guidance for higher education

A new month and a new pushback of the earliest date by which there might be an easing of the restrictions on higher education in England means a set of minor revisions to the official guidance for higher education from the Department for Education.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Important not to get too excited here – DfE hasn’t suddenly confirmed that face to face teaching is pretty much a write off this term or anything. This is pretty much DfE in “update the FAQ” mode – minor changes and clarifications that respond to ongoing questions and concerns being raised by universities and students.

Take the (home) student loan entitlement issue, for example. Officially the rate of student loan that English domicile students get varies depending on whether you spend the “majority” of the term living at or away from home (the latter being a higher rate). Today DfE confirms that students’ loan entitlements for the current term will not be reassessed if they are still incurring accommodation costs away from home – so students in receipt of the “living away from home” loan will retain the maintenance loans paid at the start of term.

But astonishingly – and in contrast to what happened in the third term last year – DfE says that students who are no longer incurring accommodation costs away from home (because, for example, they have exited their contracts, or moved home permanently) should “continue to request reassessment”. It’s not immediately clear that that’s either a enforceable or legally sound position – it’ll be interesting to see what the Student Loans Company itself now says when it operationalises this policy thrust from the government.

There are plenty of little technical changes. Policing is added to the bullet point list of courses permitted to run face to face this term. Courses that require PSRB assessments and/or other PRSB mandatory activity this term can return (previously that was about whether that activity was scheduled for January). And this guidance cross refers to the new higher fines for house parties, reminding us that they apply in halls of residence too.

And there are some changes to wording – for example this bit on catering is now clearer:

Catering facilities provided as parts of halls and educational accommodation can continue to provide that service. All other catering outlets on campus would need to follow the takeaway only model but on-premises provision can continue where there is no practical alternative for staff and students to obtain food and drink, and alcohol is not served for consumption on the premises. Students should take their food home to the place where they live to consume it wherever possible.

The material on asymptomatic testing has been updated to reflect the “twice a week until the end of March” offer, and the controversial change of removing confirmatory PCR testing in the event of a positive. There’s also a new section on testing for staff, which covers off staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable (work from home or don’t go in) and staff who are pregnant (where employers are asked to carry out a risk assessment).

International students are still being asked to “consider whether they in fact need to travel to the UK at this time, particularly if their course does not require them to be on campus yet” although a legitimate answer back may well be “yeah I need to get there soon because your Home Office says if I’m not there by April 6th I won’t be allowed onto the graduate post-study work route”. There’s also a brand new section of travel guidance for Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps.

While we’re on – you may have seen a short piece we did (now redirecting here) that looked at exemptions for and the process of students who study away from home being allowed to move to and become part of a “vacation household”, and then move back.

We had looked at the legislation and assumed it meant that a student could do all of that, once each way, until the date in the regs of February 8th. We’re happy to confirm that in fact we were wrong – and that the Feb 8th deadline is only for the first of the two journeys involved here.

In other words students must have started their “vacation” by Feb 8th, but there’s no legal deadline on students making the journey back the other way after the vacation. Which, presumably, means that landlords can still demand that students pay rent on properties the government is advising they don’t use. Good times.

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