Course closure and/or modification mid-stream

This article in today’s Guardian about universities making late changes to published course content reminded me of this piece I wrote for Research Fortnight last year.

It seems to me that the increasingly unpredictable patterns of student recruitment make it more likely that courses will have to be closed or modified to reflect actual recruitment levels. Universities and colleges cannot realistically be expected to continue to run courses that are uneconomic or unviable due to low numbers: not only does this (ultimately) jeopardise the institution’s financial health, but it also cannot guarantee the kind of vibrant and stimulating learning experience that students increasingly crave.

Universities and colleges therefore need the right to the full extent permitted by the consumer protection regime to make changes to published course descriptions. There is however a difference between having a legal right to do something and the manner of exercising that right. Universities undoubtedly need to manage the process as well as they possibly can in order for the exercise of the right to make modifications to cause as little detriment as possible to individual students. In particular, good communication in the exercise of legal rights reduces the risk of complaint and push-back.

What does good communication look like in these circumstances?

It has to be timely, with decisions being made as early as possible with the interests of students driving the process as far as reasonably possible. It should be proactive, trying to offer alternatives and solutions, rather than presenting only a fait-accompli. It should encompass all possible affected parties, so includes current, prospective, deferred and intercalated students, staff and partners. The co-operation of the latter two categories will often be key to delivering a modified course or teaching-out a closing course in the way that best protects the interests of students. It should also aim to be reciprocal: those affected may have concerns, queries or even suggestions on how to reduce any negative consequences.

These points may seem self-evident, but my experience of advising institutions on claims and complaints brought by students affected by these types of issues suggests they can sometimes be overlooked.

Smita Jamdar
Partner and Head of Education
For and on behalf of SGH Martineau LLP
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M:  07909 925946
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E: smita.jamdar@sghmartineau.com
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