OfS on telling students about changes in provision

With a national lockdown imminent, providers are considering how teaching might need to change. OfS has a guide to explaining this to students.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Universities in England may be wondering how to explain the impact of the next lockdown to students, and the OfS’ Susan Lapworth has a letter to help.

It adds another two pages to the increasingly weighty tome of guidance issued during the pandemic, but the message here is a simple one.

Unlike anyone else, the OfS appears to still believe in the utility of those tiers of blended provision. Remember? Here they are:

  • Tier 1 (default position): Providers are expected to provide blended learning, with some face-to-face tuition.
  • Tier 2 (fallback position): Providers move to an “increased level” of online learning where possible. Providers prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment.
  • Tier 3 (where stricter measures are needed): Providers increase the level of online learning to retain face-to-face provision for priority courses (for example, clinical and medical courses), and in as limited number of situations as possible. Meanwhile students are ordered to remain in their current accommodation and not return their family home (providers are told to support students in this scenario by keeping campus services like libraries and catering open – something that proved controversial in particular with library staff and their trade unions back in March).
  • Tier 4 (last resort): The majority of provision to be online, with buildings open for essential workers only. This should include the continuation of essential research.

As good as you remember, I’m sure.


Anyway, it’s been the stated aim of the regulator to have a chat to providers who have hit tier three – and it is from these conversations that recommendations on student communications are drawn.

The expectation is that there is a clear plan – with visible decision points based on external data driving a university through the liminal spaces up and down the four tiers. So a hypothetical student could look at a plan, and think “ah, I see that non-essential shops have closed and people are being urged to work from home, and the plan says that means we’ll go to tier three, so I might get a bit less face-to-face learning”.

It would be difficult, as I see it, for our hypothetical student in England to look at the current national restrictions and expect anything else – though the language in Michelle Donelan’s letter cleaves more to tier 2 type language (without ever actually stating this clearly). You’ll also recall the letter was very sniffy about the prospect of a Tier 4, which does make me wonder under what circumstances the DfE would consider that a sensible decision.

Universities are urged to explain plans for the rest of the year as far as is possible – including ideas about rescheduling delayed teaching. Because 2020 has taught us well, the expectation is that these plans may evolve in the event of further national restrictions (waves three and four?) and again students are expected to understand how these reviews will be done.

Computer says “blended”

You’d probably right to conclude that a very mechanistic plan (linked to wider restrictions, R estimates, or case numbers) would fit these requirements very easily – a more humanistic plan that took the mental and emotional state of staff and students into account would struggle. It’s the kind of metricised decision making that appears rational at first glance, but breaks down as the arbitrariness of boundaries is made clear.

A wave to humanity involves a reminder to make students aware of support services and complaints mechanisms. And the “reportable event” hotline for providers struggling financially is always open. So there’s that.

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