SLC clarifies the position on distance learning and student loans

You may recall that a couple of weeks ago, amid ongoing debate about blended learning, we sought to answer an important question.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

When is a student that is on an “in attendance” course “in attendance” so little that they become a distance learning student?

At the time various people questioned why we were even trying to make the outdated distinction – but it matters because in England, home domiciled students on a course designated as “distance learning” don’t get a maintenance loan whereas those “in attendance” do, and it’s not as if ministers keen to play to the press over F2F are rushing to change the law.

And, of course, when we say “in England” we mean students from England, not courses in England. The course could be anywhere in the UK.

This could all be a big issue for a couple of reasons. First, there’s a whole bunch of providers getting requests from students to study remotely for access reasons, and some of those providers are formally designating some courses as being capable of being experienced in this way.

Secondly, there’s students who – though a mixture of luck and the modular realities underneath the “averages” of percentage based blended announcements – are not due to get any face to face teaching this term, or least very little.

Providers wouldn’t want either of these groups to lose access to their maintenance loans – and neither would students.

Anyway having written up the outline position from policy people, we were waiting on some more detail from SLC which itself was waiting on more detail from DfE. That’s now emerged as Student Support Information Note 06/21, which clarifies the position both in relation to attendance and residence, and international travel – although we’re not sure it’s as clear as it set out to be.

Last year a formal blind eye was turned to the rules on residence and attendance for obvious reasons (although there was some kerfuffle about the rates of loan). Now the basic position is that as there are no longer any restrictions on face-to-face provision, those temporary changes to rules on attendance and residence that were adopted to cope with the effects of COVID both at the end of AY19/20 and for the whole of AY20/21 will no longer apply.

Now SLC is at pains to point out that the fact that certain parts of a course may be provided online and can be followed by a student without being in physical attendance does not necessarily mean that that course will be classified as a distance learning course – as has always been the case, the nature of a courses will be assessed taking account of the required pattern of attendance “across the course as a whole”.

But it also warns that if a provider agrees a pattern of attendance for an individual student that requires only “occasional” attendance during the week (across, for example, this term), then that student may be classified as a distance learner for the purposes of student support.

Meanwhile, a full-time course where a student is [required to be] physically attending the provider on a regular basis for a “substantial amount of time” (e.g. for lectures, tutorials, learning in the workplace and studying at providers’ libraries) will attract loans for living costs and, where applicable, dependants grants and/or DSA.

As ever, the rate of maintenance support to which a student is entitled will be determined by where they are living for the majority of each term.

You’ll note that there are two confections there – “occasional” at one end, and “substantial” at the other. Anyone unclear about whether the coin might come up heads or tails for a particular course (or presumably a particular pathway crafted by a students’ individual module choices) falling in between those two poles is advised to contact the Student Loans Company.

The one exemption on a course having to be designated as “distance” is noted as a student “unable to attend their course as a result of a disability”, although note that is framed as “unable” rather than “would prefer”.

The thing about international travel is clearer, although you may have to read this a few times:

  • UK Students prevented from travelling abroad for their overseas year of study (as part of a degree from a UK provider) due to Covid-19 will still be considered as attending the overseas institution if that provider is providing the learning online.
    • If the UK provider provides part of the learning during the year in which the student had intended to study overseas, but the period of full-time study at the UK provider is less than 10 weeks (with the remainder provided by the overseas HEP online or on-site) the 15% fee cap (up to £1,385) will apply.
    • In cases where at least 10 weeks of full-time study is provided by the UK HEP, eligible students can be charged up to the £9,250 maximum fee. Students will have access to a fee loan to meet the full costs of tuition.
  • Eligible students studying remotely with an overseas provider, but living in the UK, will receive the rate of loan for living costs that would apply to study in the UK. If they subsequently travel overseas, their entitlement can be reassessed.
  • Eligible students who would normally be undertaking a distance learning course in England (or the UK for continuing students who initially undertook the course in England), but who are required temporarily to study online from outside the UK as a result of Covid19, will be considered to be studying in England and will qualify for a fee loan.
  • Eligible students having, due to Covid-19, to study remotely overseas with a UK provider on a course that normally requires attendance, will be considered temporarily absent from the UK and therefore as studying in England, provided that they are engaging with their UK provider. This includes both UK nationals and EU nationals with settled status. Eligible students in this case will qualify for both tuition fee loans and loans for living costs and, where applicable, dependants grants and/or DSA.

Yes, it is all a bit late for all this eminently predicable stuff to emerge. But no later than anything else has been since March 2020.

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