Gavin Williamson has dropped a threat to force universities to refund tuition fees if they fail to restore face-to-face teaching, after a regulator said it had no such power.
But the regulator made clear it has no remit over the level of fees charged and the Department for Education (DfE) admitted there is no plan to change the law to beef up its powers.
It means ministers can only put public pressure on universities to reduce fees if in-person teaching is reduced – and none have done so, since the Covid pandemic struck.
Labour said the confusion was a continuation of Mr Williamson’s “chaotic incoherent approach” throughout the pandemic.
The education secretary raised expectations when he said all universities must be “moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons, lectures, face-to-face”.
Asked if refunds should be given if they failed to do that, he told Sky News: “Universities have got to stand up their offers to their students.
“But we have got the Office for Students, which is targeting universities which have low-quality courses, which aren’t doing enough, and we will give the OfS all the power, all the backing, in order to pursue those universities that aren’t delivering enough for students that are paying their fees.”
However, the OfS told The Independent it was only able to fine low-quality universities, suspend student support funding or, in extreme circumstances, strike them off the list of approved institutions.
“The role of the OfS is to make sure that students receive a high-quality education,” a spokesperson said.
“Where standards slip, we are ready to step in. We do not have the power to award refunds or set policies on tuition fees.”
Students who believe they have not received value for money can turn to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), which offers a free complaints system.
It can order partial refunds for disrupted learning and problems with accommodation – and, in one case in March, a student received £5,000 in compensation for lost teaching time.
Last year, the OIA received 2,604 complaints, 500 of which were linked to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but many were rejected.
Earlier, Mr Williamson said: “Our direction is clear and we do expect all universities, unless there’s unprecedented reasons, to be moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons, lectures, face-to-face.”
A DfE spokesperson said any students objecting to remote learning were expected to complain to their university.
“If their concerns remain unresolved, students at providers in England or Wales can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to consider their complaint,” a statement added.
Matt Western, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said: “Gavin Williamson has operated in panic mode throughout this crisis. Universities and students need clarity so all students get the world class experience they deserve.”
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