Oxford University uses lockdown loophole to allow in-person MBA teaching

Students on prestigious course will be back on campus at least a month before others are permitted to return

The University of Oxford is exploiting a loophole in the government’s lockdown guidance to allow MBA students to receive face-to-face teaching at least a month before other students are allowed back on campus.

Students on Oxford’s prestigious course will be able to attend in-person seminars and workshops at the Saïd business school from Monday after the university claimed the course was “practical”, similar to nursing or medical science courses.

Unions said the decision was a clear breach of the spirit of the government’s guidelines for the higher education sector, which state: “Students should not return to in-person teaching unless they study a practical course and require specialist facilities and equipment.”

Oxford’s decision to classify MBAs and eight similar postgraduate courses as practical is said to have come after it received scores of complaints from students, especially from those on the MBA course unhappy with having to pay £60,000 for remote learning.

Under the government’s guidelines for England, students on laboratory-based or practical courses such as teaching have received essential in-person tuition since the latest lockdown began in January.

Its reopening roadmap allows further practical or practice-based courses requiring specialist equipment, such as creative arts, to return from 8 March. Others, including undergraduates taking final exams, cannot return to campus until 12 April at the earliest.

The latest government guidance states: “Providers should not ask students to return if their course can reasonably be continued online.”

The University and College Union said Oxford’s decision to bring back MBA students as one of nine courses was evidence of the university prioritising its finances over the health and safety of students and staff.

“Permitting ​the premature return of high fee paying, non-practical courses at the potential expense of health and safety is a clear breach of the spirit of government recommendations and shows that the decision is income driven not educational,” said the UCU’s general secretary, Jo Grady.

An email from the Saïd business school management, seen by the Guardian, said the university’s approval for MBA face-to-face teaching was “progress towards the more normal operation of the school”.

The memo also said the school would reopen its study spaces for students on other courses from Monday, including for those studying for purely research degrees such as doctorates, and that catering facilities would be open.

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said: “In accordance with government guidelines, nine taught postgraduate courses which have a practical element or are practice-based will resume in-person teaching from Monday 8 March. These include the MBA, which is an applied programme with substantial practical elements to each module, particularly at this stage of the academic year.

“The university will continue its Covid-secure arrangements to ensure in-person teaching can take place safely, which have been in place since the start of the academic year and have successfully helped contain the virus and prevent further transmission. Those students returning to Oxford will be expected to take two Covid-19 tests on arrival, to wear face coverings where appropriate and to abide by safety measures.”

A member of staff said he understood that many MBA students had written directly to the vice-chancellor to demand in-person learning. At a virtual school meeting last week staff were told the decision to reopen the business school was taken by the university’s leadership, the staff member said.

MBA courses offer an advanced business qualification for professionals with management experience, and some universities such as Warwick and Durham deliver their courses entirely online. The Saïd business school website says its MBA qualification equips students with skills in leadership, conflict management, strategy building and negotiation.


Rachel Hall Education reporter

The GuardianTramp

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