When it’s time to close

A guest blog from Hugh Jones, Higher Education Consultant at Hugh Jones Consulting, an organisation that provides specialised support to strengthen the governance, management and strategic direction of higher education institutions in the UK.

The summer is an important time for some universities in the application cycle. As every month goes by, a sharper picture emerges of the likely position at the start of the next year: which subjects will be in clearing and for how many students; and, crucially, which programmes look viable and which don’t. It’s a reality of UK higher education that programmes which don’t attract students in sufficient numbers can no longer be supported, and decisions to close programmes are taken more swiftly.

Universities that find themselves in this position have a lot to consider: they’re responsible for making sure that current students and disappointed applicants don’t lose out by this; and the staff who taught on the programme may be worried too. The QAA have expectations; and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has also issued guidance. Here are some thoughts which can help you to get it right.

For current students, remember that you’ve got an obligation to see them through the programme of study: that’s the contract that you entered into with them. You need to provide the educational experience which you offered when they started. Plan for this: make sure you’re clear what you’ll offer as the programme winds down, and how. And talk to the students openly about the issues: why the programme had to close, what you’re going to do to make sure that they have a good educational experience as they finish the programme, and what changes you want to make to the programme as it winds down.

You must listen to them as well – understand their concerns and worries; discuss with them possible options for winding the programme down; take on board their concerns. And be prepared for them to come up with good ideas about how to manage the situation. They might be amendable to changing programmes; they might be open to new modules being available. The more that you can do to be flexible, the stronger your position will be in the event of complaints.

Don’t forget that you need to take account of students who are interrupting or resitting. It may take a number of years to wind a programme down, and you must be prepared for this.

Remember, Chapter B8 of the QAA’s Quality Code sets out their expectations for when a programme is closed. You should have an agreed procedure when a programme closes, which takes into account the effects on current student and applicants, which assesses the impact on learning experience and academic standards, and which protects the academic interests of current students.

The situation with applicants should be considered too. If you change the advertised programme before a student enrols – which obviously includes closing it – you need to be sure that the applicants know about the issues, and that you advise them about their options. Telling them as soon as you can, and as clearly as you can, will help address the QAA’s expectation (Chapter B2 of the Quality Code); you also need to tell them what their options are. These options could include applying to a different programme or to a different university. Whatever their choice, you should take reasonable steps to facilitate this: remember, the decision to close the programme and disappoint the applicants was yours.

You also need to have in mind the CMA’s guidance. A key point to remember here is that universities have more information, experience and savvy than applicants. The onus is on the university to do the right thing by the applicants, and consumer protection legislation applies. As soon as an applicant accepts an offer, you have made a contract with them.  The CMA’s guidance sets out in detail how you must behave to fulfil your obligations.

Many universities will have reviewed their documentation to ensure that it meets the CMA’s requirements.  In respect of programme closures, or changes, you need to tell students in plain language and up front – in the pre-contract information, using the CMA’s terms – about when and why changes might arise, so that you can get their consent to this. And you must do so in ways which are not unfair: remember that the CMA considers universities to be much more powerful than applicants, and therefore the responsibility for acting reasonably sit with the university. A small-print disclaimer in a prospectus will no longer fit the bill.

Staff may be affected by the decision too. If a subject area is closing, then you may have to look at redundancies, and this brings clear responsibilities on the part of the employer. If the closure is part of a move to offer different programmes in the same subject area, then making sure that staff are aware of the plans, and involved in the process, will help to ensure that they are positive and engaged. And they will then be your best ambassadors with the students concerned.

Finally, it’s always good to learn lessons. After the programme is closed, a review to see what worked well and what didn’t is a good idea. You might find that your procedures and documents need to be updated to reflect this review. You might find that the experience prompts you to think about other elements of your planning activity: could a decision have been made earlier, reducing the heartache and disappointment? Did options arise during the process that you hadn’t previously considered? Making sure that you do a thorough review will almost certainly save you time later.

Capital Law are able to advise and help with any of these issues. Iestyn Morris, head of the education team, will be glad to talk to you.

Hugh Jones, Hugh Jones Consulting. Email or tweet Hugh.