Last month, in an evidence hearing organised by the Petitions Committee, Sophie Quinn, a student and the author of the refund tuition fees petition which received over 340K signatures, told Members how students felt “angry” and “frustrated” as Coronavirus prevented them from getting the education they had paid for.
With considerable interruptions to education this year, first with the strikes and now the pandemic, and with students taking on significant debt to invest in this education, it is no wonder the refund tuition fees petition has gained such traction – tens of thousands of people have shared their views and concerns through social media channels.
Refund tuition fees
Catherine McKinnell MP, Chair of the Petitions Committee, Tonia Antoniazzi MP and Elliot Colburn MP yesterday held Universities Minister Michelle Donelan MP to account on refunding tuition fees and key issues for students in the current coronavirus crisis.
Michelle Donelan MP – a former member of this committee – acknowledges that the “impact on students [is] really stark at a very vulnerable and important time in their lives” and that while they have “consumer rights” she insists that any refund is down to the individual university and is not a matter for the government.
Donelan stated that: “Universities are autonomous in setting their own fees,” and will want to ensure their courses are “fit for purpose” so “a refund is more a matter for a university than the government”.
Donelan added that a refund is very much dependent on a student’s “individual contractual relationship” with its place of study and recommends that the first step is to make a formal complaint at their university.
If not satisfied, she advised to escalate this to the Office for Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education who will examine on a case by case basis.
A raw deal?
Donelan maintained that any refund would be based on quality and therefore not every student would be entitled to such as it “isn’t fair to say that every student has had a raw deal… some universities have provided innovative technology to teach their students”.
However, a survey carried out by the Petitions Committee revealed that 79% of students were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the quality of teaching.
Donelan reiterated that: “Government doesn’t really have a decision here [re tuition fees refund] because institutions are autonomous” and that “‘the process… should be independent” in deciding on a refund.
In terms of financial support for students – especially as they are not eligible to claim Universal Credit and many have been unable to exit tenancy agreements in private rented student accommodation they no longer need, Donelan pointed to the following that has been put in place:
- all student loans have been delivered on time
- some students are eligible for the ‘coronavirus job retention scheme’
- £23m has been freed up per month April to July to use for hardship funds, with recommendations to use this to support ongoing mental health, technology connectivity and accommodation costs.
According to the NUS, 20% of students surveyed couldn’t even access online courses. Combine this with the impact on vocational and skills-based courses, particularly those from disadvantage backgrounds, and the potential loss of international students – universities are under a great challenge to provide quality and innovative learning for the next academic year.
You might also like: Effects of refunding tuition fees would be “horrendous”, Petitions Committee is told
Donelan states that “universities [have already] risen to the challenge and invested quickly in innovative technology”; that next year there will be a move towards a more “blended type of learning”; and that online doesn’t always mean “inferior learning” – and can be “superior”.
Furthermore, Donelan stated that universities need to offer “certainty now” and “transparency” on what students can expect for to help them inform their decisions.
She added: “Institutions will have had months to prepare, expectation is much higher [and] we are expecting much more innovation – more reliance on technology to help provide these courses.”
Other key take-homes
Quality of education: independent regulator OfS has been monitoring this daily and to-date has only received a small number of complaints in current satisfaction levels, although they are likely to increase.
Research: a “cross-ministerial task force” has been set up to focus on research solutions. “Our research base is more important than ever before moving out of a corona Britain helping to build economy,” stated Donelan.
International students: Donelan said that attracting international students is a top priority and “The UK is open and ready for business, flexible [and can offer] innovative online learning [but] ‘blended’ is a top priority” and there is still a ‘window of opportunity to attract them.” Donelan stated that she is looking for flexibility from the Home Office with extensions to Visa regulations to enable international students to resit the current year if they so wish.