The university regulator for England, the Office for Students, has warned higher education establishments that they must “honour their promises” to incoming students.
The watchdog is, according to its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, “actively monitoring” the quality of online degrees, which must remain at a high standard whenever teaching moves online.
The Office for Students will investigate any complaints it receives from disgruntled undergraduates about the standard of their online learning.
The regulator, Dandridge clarified, has the power to fine universities that have broken their conditions for registration.
An investigation by the Telegraph has found that almost a quarter of a million undergraduates across England are currently receiving online teaching.
Liverpool University has become the most recent higher education institution in England to suspend all in-person classes as local coronavirus cases climb rapidly.
The university has implemented tighter social distancing restrictions for its students in response, including prohibiting social interactions between different accommodation units.
Professor Dame Janet Beer, the college’s vice-chancellor, issued a statement explaining that the university had implemented the new measures because of the high number of outbreaks in the city.
She and her colleagues, she said, “believe we can keep our students and staff safe at this level of operation”.
Two other higher education establishments in the city, Liverpool John Moores and Liverpool Hope, transferred to online-only teaching in September.
They are not alone: over the last few weeks, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sheffield, Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan universities have each adopted the same online-only strategy.
The result is that approximately 216,000 young students are now pursuing all their learning from within their bedrooms.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan took the same stance as the Office for Students, firmly emphasising that there should be no diminution in teaching hours simply because classes have switched to the online medium.
She said: “We all know the benefits of face-to-face teaching but if universities move all teaching online, students should be assured that certain standards must be met.”
The University of Bristol suffered a significant outbreak last week after 40 students returned coronavirus-positive test results in a single hall of residence.
300 students were subsequently required to self-quarantine.
Meanwhile, students forced into self-quarantine at Durham University have complained that they had received no hot meals for six consecutive days and that the food they were given left them going to their beds still hungry.
The university’s vice-chancellor has apologised for the poor nutrition (students are not permitted to leave their household units to buy food).
One Durham undergraduate, who received a positive test result just days after arriving to begin her studies, told the Telegraph that she and her peers were not permitted to order in any food provisions of their own and were therefore entirely dependent on the food boxes given to them by the university.
She was dismayed to find that the contents consisted of “parcels filled with junk food” and ready meals.
She added: “We are in a catered college so normally you would be given hot meals every day that would be cooked for us.”
The university has announced that following the negative feedback from students, it has listened and has now put in place a new hot food regime instead of the food boxes.