Who is (and isn’t) a “distance learner” post-Covid?

You know when those random students give quotes to press articles along the lines of “If I’d wanted to go to the Open University I’d have done so”?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


My first thought each time is – ah. Interesting. When is a student that is on an “in attendance” course “in attendance” so little that they become a distance learning student?

For example. The other day, a parent slid into my DMs with a version of this question.

Their undergraduate, final year daughter had just been issued with a provisional timetable for the year that – partly because of the dissertation component and the other modules that she’d picked – only has online teaching on it. There will be a few optional, in-person group discussions sessions for students but no actual requirement to be on campus for teaching at all.

From a wider perspective, (re)enrolment is going to be run online, personal tutor and diss supervision meetings are now taking place on teams, and end of semester assessments are either coursework or 24 hour timed assessments run online. Library resources are basically e-journals and e-books for this student, and services like careers have made the big pivot.

No mandatory work experience. No mandatory placement.

Now you can have a debate about whether that’s a good student experience, whether the student should have been warned earlier, whether the delivery method here is wise during Covid, and so on. We’ve hosted (and I’ve prodded) on many of those debates on the site.

But the specific question that came up in the exchange was – is this course this semester “so online” that it ends up being a distance learning course, and would that affect her funding?

That matters quite a bit, because in England distance learning courses do qualify for tuition fee loans and Disabled Students Allowance support but do not qualify for loans for living costs or (where applicable) dependants grants (unless a student is unable to attend their course as a result of a disability).

The student support regulations define a distance learning course as:

a course on which a student undertaking the course is not required to be in attendance by the institution providing the course, where required to be in attendance is not satisfied by a requirement imposed by the institution to attend any institution

(a) for the purposes of registration or enrolment or any examination;

(b) on a weekend or during any vacation; or

(c) on an occasional basis during the week”

What you can’t really do is just argue that occasionally hanging around a campus is a “requirement to be in attendance” – there actually has to be an actual “requirement to attend” (like something that might end up being monitored), otherwise all sorts of distance learning students otherwise not allowed to get maintenance loans could just enrol on the “normal” course and get the funding. OU students – long denied maintenance support in most of the UK – would be especially aggrieved.

There is a kind of point to this. The basic argument is that maintenance funding is there (at least in part) to cover stuff like student housing (rent, admin fees, utilities) homeware and kitchenware, regular travel to campus, and printing. The assumption (however daft) is that distance learners don’t face these costs – and so don’t need the support.

Last year, these regs were understandably relaxed so that students who’d already moved into rental accommodation or were stuck isolating at home could still get the funding even though they were being supported to learn online.

But what of this year – with Gavin Williamson rattling his “in-person” teaching sabre?

The Student Loans Company told me that for the 2021/22 academic year, the Department for Education is reverting to the understanding that attendance requires physical engagement at a provider as was the case prior to the exceptional Covid advice.

It also said that only full-time courses where a student is physically attending the provider on a regular basis for a “substantial” amount of time across each term (e.g. for lectures, tutorials, learning in the workplace and/or studying at providers’ libraries) will attract those loans for living costs and, where applicable, dependants grants and/or DSA.

The “substantial” bit is across a term – so just an hour a week every week of the term sounds like it would be fine as long as it was mandatory, but not if it wasn’t like that for most weeks.

Here’s the killer bit:

Where all aspects of a full-time course are provided online with no regular requirement for attendance at the provider, the course will be treated as a distance learning course – i.e. students will qualify for tuition fee loan and, where applicable, DSA support but not loans for living costs or, where applicable, dependants grants (unless a student is unable to attend their course as a result of a disability).

Obviously I wanted to know about a single term/semester or a single year:

If only part of the course is provided online then the course would not necessarily be classed as a distance learning course for the purposes of the regulations, but the Department for Education have confirmed that students undertaking periods of online study with no wider requirements to be regularly attending at a provider will only qualify for tuition fee loan and DSA support for those periods.

Weirdly, this is much clearer than both Michelle Donelan and Gavin Williamon’s previous pronouncements about not having actual control over autonomous universities who would be free to offer any balance of online/in-person as long as there was warning, it was of decent quality, and so on.

But what’s clear here is that in many universities, the mix of moving extra and co-curricular services and processes online, safety concerns and efforts to include international students who can’t get in, and the particular circumstances surrounding a particular set of module choices, all might be about to inadvertently render a whole bunch of courses and their students ineligible for student maintenance support.

SLC, from their office in Glasgow, assumed I was only asking about England – but given distance learning students in Wales get maintenance support, it’s Scotland and NI where there are also question marks. I’ll update when I hear back.

5 responses to “Who is (and isn’t) a “distance learner” post-Covid?

  1. Interesting and important but remind me do the Student Award Regulations currently define the minimum number of hours of attendance required for an English full time student to qualify for maintenance support and can attendance at weekends count for that purpose ?

    1. It’s been a while since I last looked but it’s my understanding that students need to be undertaking a minimum of 90 credits to be considered full time and therefore be eligible for full time student support. This would imply, based on the notional understanding of credit:hours ratio that 900 hours would be the figure.

  2. It’s always frustrating to see so many references to the Open University that are misleading or simply uninformed. The OU has always offered blended learning – regular face to-face tutorials were a regular component from the very start, as well as residential schools, weekend/day schools and field trips. ‘Distance Learning’ is a complete misnomer, and has never been a satisfactory definition of the OU. Phoenix, perhaps, but not the OU.
    Back in the day, as an undergraduate, ‘distance learning’ began for me when I found a reading list on a notice-board and was sent away to acquire the appropriate learning; or when I sat at the back of a vast lecture-theatre, barely able to see or hear the lecturer.
    Once the Internet came on the scene, teaching and learning began to shift into all manner of hybrid patterns for all universities, and technology-enhanced learning became widespread – although the OU version is deliberate and designed, rather than merely opportunistic; and Covid has accentuated this.
    The Open University is not a distance learning university. If you must label it as anything other than an open university, or a non traditional university, call it a ‘closeness’ university – because its reach to students is often more personalised, more tailored and more effective than many traditional, so-called campus universities.

  3. Distance vs ‘on campus’ is obsolete as a binary divide. Synchronous cf. Asynchronous is more relevant now.

    It’s at least 10 years since hearing at a US conference of an example of a student living in Halls but only taking online classes. Someone else trumped this with an example of a student living in Halls but only taking online classes at other universities and transferring the credit…..

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