Students returned to education this September after facing huge disruption to teaching in the 2019/20 academic year. To minimise the risks posed by Covid-19 dramatic changes have been made to the way Higher Education Establishments teach courses in the 2020/21 academic year. We look at what the 'new normal' will be in classrooms and lecture halls and the risks the current situation poses.
Many Higher Education Establishments have advised its students that face-to-face teaching will be kept to a minimum in order to reduce the risks of Covid-19. Lectures and seminars will instead take place virtually either using pre-recorded material or by using platforms such as Zoom or Teams.
The lack of face-to-face teaching means that students may find it harder to raise questions and engage in academic debate with their peers. A lack of physical resources, such as access to the University Library, is also likely to cause academic challenges.
Higher Student Numbers
The Government's unexpected and last minute U-turn on A-Level results caused, and will continue to cause, a significant headache for Higher Education Establishments.
Many students originally deemed to have missed their required grades were unable to take up their offers at Higher Education Establishments. However, following the revisions of thousands of grades, many establishments found that they had more accepted offers than places available.
Higher Education Establishments have now had to increase class size numbers in order to accommodate the extra students. The higher class numbers places a further strain on the virtual and physical resources available to students.
Grades determined by predictions
Students did not sit A-Level exams this year. Instead, grades were determined by teachers' assessment of what Students may have achieved if they had sat the exams, or, where they were more favourable, Students' predicted grades.
Predicted grades or teachers assessments can never provide a completely accurate reflection of a student's academic capabilities. Some students may now be enrolled on courses that, had they been required to sit exams, they may never have achieved the requisite grades for. Students in this situation may struggle with the academic demands of the course. Such students may require additional help and guidance. If that is not received, these students may well look to place blame on the Higher Education Establishments.
There has been a lot of recent press coverage reporting how students are being required to self-isolate due to outbreaks of coronavirus in halls of residence.
There are reports of self-isolating students finding it difficult to undertake necessary tasks such as purchasing food or washing their clothes. Students have to isolate in tiny rooms that they describe as being "Prisons". It remains to be seen what impact this will have on students' mental well-being.
Risks the 'new normal' poses
Higher Education Establishments and students are clearly going to face a variety of additional challenges this academic year. If not managed well, these additional challenges could lead to a sharp increase in claims against Higher Education Establishments arising from some or all of the sources described below.
Fee refund claims
In April/May 2020, pace quickly gathered on a mass demand for students to be compensated by means of a refund of fees paid for lost teaching due to lecturers' strikes and Covid-19.
In circumstances where going forward students will be taught mostly online, be part of much larger class sizes and have a lack of access to physical resources, student complaints that they are not getting value for money will continue. We anticipate demand for fee refunds will also continue.
It should be noted that fee refund claims are unlikely to be covered by most professional indemnity policies.
Negligent/Inadequate teaching claims
Students' expectations regarding standards of teaching and online learning materials during this academic year are likely to be higher as they will expect to be compensated for the lack of face-to-face teaching. If such resources are not adequate students will expect recompense.
Higher student numbers, more emphasis on online teaching and having students enrolled on courses that might not suit their academic abilities is bound to place further additional strain on lecturers and resources. This creates the perfect storm for causing an increase in claims arising from negligence and/or alleged inadequate teaching.
To minimise the risks, Higher Education Establishments need to carefully monitor online teaching resources to ensure adequate standards are maintained. Lecturers should, where possible, be encourage to post additional virtual material to compensate for the lack of physical resources.
A higher percentage of staff working remotely increases the risks of data protection breaches arising. Staff are having to adapt to a new remote working world and may quickly forget their data protection obligations.
Remote working also makes it harder for staff to confidentially dispose of sensitive information. Staff may also being using their own devices to undertake their work, posing questions about whether such devices are adequately protected.
We anticipate that remote working will lead to an increase in Data Protection breaches by Higher Education Establishments. The risks can however be mitigated simply by Higher Education Establishments providing additional Data Protection training for all employees.
Mental Health Discrimination Claims
Covid-19 is going to continue to have an impact on the mental wellbeing of students, particularly those who are self-isolating. Higher Education Establishments owe a duty of care to assist students who might be struggling.
In 2017, it was reported that a student suffering from chronic anxiety and depression sued Oxford University for alleged discrimination that caused psychological harm and loss of earnings. In that case, the University allegedly refused to allow special arrangements for the student's exams causing the student to require a one year break from the course. Other Higher Education Establishments have also seen claims of alleged discrimination against students suffering with mental health issues.
There has never been a more important time for Higher Education Establishments to be mindful of Students' mental wellbeing and put in place additional measures to assist such students.
Our thoughts on risk management for Education professionals hopefully provides helpful guidance on how Higher Education Establishments can manage the risks posed by Covid-19. Of course, the key initial point in this process is that the range of risks is identified and recognised. Whilst Covid-19 is not going to be eliminated any time soon, there is no reason why Higher Education Establishments cannot continue to run courses successfully in a virtual environment if they take active measures to mitigate the new risk landscape.