Students should take “mass action” to win tuition fee compensation, the National Union of Students (NUS) has said today, as it claimed a third of learners are dissatisfied with their university’s distance learning provision.
The union’s national president, Zamzam Ibrahim, said the government has ignored students’ concerns about course delivery and warned ministers not to underestimate “the scale of student anger”.
Ms Ibrahim said the experiences of students this year put paid to ministers’ claims that students were “empowered consumers”.
She questioned why the government has not acted to support students before and called upon the education secretary Gavin Williamson to offer “tangible help” and restore trust in the system. The government’s package should include, Ms Ibrahim continued, debt relief and financial compensation or the ability to redo a proportion of their studies at no additional cost.
According to the union’s own figures, around 20% of students have been unable to access their learning at all during the lockdown and a third does not believe the learning offered has been of good quality.
The NUS said its data shows that thousands of students would have a strong case if they complained to the sector’s ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE). It said around one in five disabled students has not received reasonable adjustments remotely and many thousands have lost access to teaching time in studios, labs or workshops.
“We were told students were going to be ’empowered consumers’ but actually, when something like this happens, we feel we’ve got less rights than if we’d booked an Airbnb. The UK government are desperate to reduce this to a series of individual problems – it’s a total betrayal of trust to the thousands of students who are now facing lifelong debts for a once-in-a-lifetime education they haven’t received,” Ms Ibrahim added.
The NUS said it was launching its campaign, which urges students to launch “a mass action of student complaints”, because the OIAHE has recently advised universities that “a blanket refusal to consider tuition fee refunds in any circumstances is not reasonable”.
The OIAHE guidance was part of a document that explained to higher education providers how the ombuds body would handle student complaints during the Covid-19 pandemic. In its view universities should consider offering inconvenienced students a refund in view of what the adjudicator said were likely to be very tumultuous circumstances. Although it advised against a “blanket refusal” to consider the move, the OIAHE did not suggest universities should offer a blanket compensation scheme.
The government has said that students who are dissatisfied should complain to their university in the first instance and then to the OIAHE if they are unhappy with their higher education provider’s (HEPs) response. This NUS branded this offer unworkable, adding: “the scale of this problem is far greater than the existing systems are designed to cope with”.
Many should be receiving training and education in subjects that can’t be delivered remotely, others are paying tuition fees while working on the NHS frontline, and many disabled students require reasonable adjustments that just can’t be catered for through online learning – this action is for those students
– Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS
Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS vice-president for higher education, said: “We’re calling today for students to sign up to our mass action to win fair compensation either through a redo, write-off, or reimbursement. We need you to come forward if you feel you have not received, or been able to access, adequate university education this term.
“We know that there are students who can’t access their education right now. Many should be receiving training and education in subjects that can’t be delivered remotely, others are paying tuition fees while working on the NHS frontline, and many disabled students require reasonable adjustments that just can’t be catered for through online learning – this action is for those students. We need to hear from you.”
In a hearing of the House of Commons petitions committee in May 2020, Universities UK (UUK) president Prof Julia Buckingham told MPs that the impact of a sector-wide refund would have an “horrendous” effect on providers.
A spokesperson for UUK said: “We recognise that students are concerned about their studies in this unprecedented situation and universities moved rapidly to ensure students did not miss out on the opportunity to learn.
“The ongoing efforts of universities and their staff to provide remote teaching and support have ensured that for most students modules and assessment have been or will be completed for 2019/20 so that they can achieve the learning outcomes for their course of study and result in a degree they can be proud of.
“While we appreciate these solutions have not always been quite what students would have expected, in an unprecedented situation the health and safety of staff and students had to be paramount.
“Complaints procedures within individual universities exist and should be the first port of call for students who are not satisfied with the support they received. This includes for students who have difficulty continuing with their learning, for example because of illness, caring responsibilities or lack of access to IT. Every university has established process for managing complaints and will be mindful of extenuating circumstances.”
The Department for Education said it expected universities to “continue to deliver a high-quality academic experience”, but that it would not offer a sector-wide compensation scheme because “universities are autonomous and there is an established process in place for students with concerns about their education”.