Students at universities that switch to online teaching due to Covid-19 campus outbreaks should not see a reduction in their contact hours, the universities minister has said.
Michelle Donelan said students should be assured that “certain standards” are met if universities halt in-person teaching amid a rise in coronavirus cases, adding that the regulator could take action.
Her comments come as England’s higher education watchdog, the Office for Students (OfS), has said it is “actively monitoring” teaching standards in universities shifting all their courses online amid Covid-19.
The University of Liverpool has become the latest institution to temporarily halt the majority of its in-person classes after nearly 100 students and staff tested positive for coronavirus last week.
Liverpool Hope University and Liverpool John Moores University reduced the number of face-to-face lessons a fortnight ago amid Covid-19 concerns.
Other universities teaching the majority of classes online include Northumbria, Newcastle, Sheffield, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan.
But a number of institutions across the UK – including the University of Bristol where 254 students and three staff have tested positive – are continuing a blended approach of face-to-face and online lessons.
Bristol University has told hundreds of students in The Courtrooms accommodation to self-isolate after 40 tested people positive in the halls.
More than 60 universities have confirmed cases of Covid-19 as thousands of students return to campus, a survey from PA suggests.
Addressing the universities which have switched lessons online, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “It is vital that they honour the promises they made to students when they applied and that the quality of what is on offer online remains high.
“We are actively monitoring the situation – and engaging with a number of universities to ensure that they are delivering good quality teaching for all students.”
She warned that the regulator could take action against universities if the quality of their online courses fall below “minimum requirements.”
Universities Minister Ms Donelan said: “Both the Government and the Office for Students expect universities to be as open and transparent as possible with students regarding their lectures and classes, and I can see no reason why students should see a reduction in contact hours.
“If there are concerns, the OfS has the powers to take action.”
On Friday, Bristol University told all 300 students living in student accommodation to remain in their flats and only socialise with those in their living circle due to the cluster of coronavirus cases.
Nick Varney, regional officer for the University and College Union (UCU), has called for Bristol to halt face-to-face lessons in light of a rise in cases.
He said: “This outbreak was entirely predictable. The University of Bristol now needs to immediately all halt in-person teaching that can be taught online and move to remote learning as the default position.
“The university needs to ensure staff are supported to provide the best quality remote teaching they can in these difficult circumstances, and any student who wants to return home must be allowed to leave university accommodation once it is safe to do so.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Universities have been working hard for many months to prepare for a blended approach to learning this term, building on the experience of online delivery during the national lockdown and feedback from students.
“All universities are working hard to provide a high quality and engaging educational experience, and ensure that students are supported and to achieve the required learning outcomes for their course, whether that’s through in-person or online teaching.
“If a student feels they are not getting the teaching or learning opportunities they were expecting, or need additional help with equipment or resources, they should speak to their university in the first instance.”