When an HE provider is no longer able to meet their commitment to deliver a course or programme, what happens to the students?
Protecting students in the event of course, institutional or corporate failure is a complex and difficult issue. Countries such as Australia and Ireland have legislated to protect international students studying in their countries. In England the protection that is available to students is, like the constitution, uncodified, but HE providers have responsibilities to their students, which they take very seriously and they generally act accordingly.
At HEFCE we thought a clearer understanding of the protections and gaps that exist in the English HE system and how providers work in the student interest would be helpful as a means of informing and reassuring students, the wider public and international audiences.
Recent discussions of student protection in England have focused on fee protection/recompense for international students, and have often related to actions that might rest on further legislation in this area. Our idea was to broaden that focus.
So last autumn we held a series of roundtable discussions with HE providers and student representative bodies. We looked at how providers discharge their responsibilities; how best to raise awareness among students and others of what protections are already in place; and what further action might be needed.
Participants emphasised the importance of the relationship between students and their providers, and the commitments they make to each other at the outset. Students can often be assured of their providers’ viability by the regulatory checks that are carried out, and providers have their own planning and risk management systems to enable them to continue to deliver their programmes.
However, unforeseen events can lead to course closure, and in these circumstances providers negotiate with the students affected to find a solution that is best for the individual. This can include the offer of another programme to study elsewhere, or a refund of course fees.
There was some scope, in the view of the roundtable participants, who included students, for these commitments to be made more explicit. Consumer legislation requires such transparency, and a clear statement would also help to protect the reputation of English HE as a whole in the face of international competition where students receive such protection (and more) through legislation. One approach is for these commitments to be articulated in an agreement with students. Another would be for providers to adopt a broad framework or sign up to a set of principles.
Developing such approaches would also enable the HE sector to put in place provision for students caught up in serious events such as corporate failure. The roundtable participants generally agreed that such students should have the opportunity to continue their studies elsewhere in the country or be given refunds, and that all providers should be more prepared to consider accepting displaced students. This activity would need co-ordination. Roundtable participants also proposed that some further work to share good practice on refunds policy, terms and conditions and student contracts would also be helpful.
HEFCE will now reflect on these views and consider how we might support a programme of work to help take forward any of these ideas that the sector wishes to pursue. Ultimately a full scheme of protection that includes guarantee of financial recompense may depend on legislation.