A petition calling for universities to compensate students ahead of industrial action has accrued more than 15,000 signatures.
The change.org petition launched by a student in Manchester has received widespread backing since it launched.
Lecturers at 74 universities are expected to take strike action later this week as part of a dispute over pensions, pay and working conditions. The University and College Union (UCU) predicts its month-long industrial action will affect 1.2m students.
The petition is calling on universities to “sufficiently reimburse students for any contact hours that they miss due to strike action”.
“Whether you support the UCU action or oppose it, this petition stands for fair treatment of students. This lost revenue may incentivise universities to take more action to prevent future strikes, as well as treat staff with the respect they deserve,” the petition reads.
“It is wholly unacceptable that universities may not provide the teaching resources and contact hours they are contractually obliged to, while still taking our tuition fees in full. As the relevant universities will not be paying lecturers and teaching staff on the days they strike, it is unfair that our money will not be spent on our education,” it continues.
Students may be entitled to refunds and compensation
A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents universities caught up in the USS dispute, said the association was “sorry that some students face disruption to their studies and know that this is a difficult and frustrating situation for them”.
UUK said it was “important for all universities to ensure they are updating students about what is happening, and that there is continued access to wider student support services”, adding: “The universities affected are already working hard to ensure that any students affected do not miss out on the opportunity to learn, with replacement teaching and online resources provided by many universities.
“Universities are also taking measures to inform and support students, including by opening dedicated telephone support lines for students, publishing FAQs and web pages, setting up ‘strike help desks’ and offering students the opportunity to reclaim expenses if they travelled to find a lecture cancelled on arrival.”
The UUK said students should complain through their university if they feel alternative arrangements are inadequate and “are able to escalate their complaint to the relevant ombudsman for their country. In some cases, students may be entitled to a (partial) refund or financial compensation.”
In a report published last year, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) said the loss of teaching time to strikes justifies partial tuition fee refunds.
In one anonymised case study included in the 2019 OIAHE report, the ombudsman recommended that one university repay £630 of tuition fees to a student, despite the provider adjusting the weighting of assessments and removing material that had not been taught from the assessments. The HEI had also moved exam dates, provided online teaching material and offered the student a goodwill payment of £130 in attempt to remedy the complaint.
In response to the petition, a spokesperson for the OIAHE told University Business: “We would not give specific advice to individual providers on any compensation programme they may wish to offer, because as an independent ombuds scheme we need to be able to look at the complaints that students bring to us impartially and reach a decision on the merits of each case.
“We have published information and guidance for student advisers and higher education providers about complaints related to industrial action. This includes guidance on handling complaints and putting things right, as well as our approach and case summaries of complaints from the 2018 industrial action.”
In a press conference yesterday, vice-chancellor Prof Mark Smith called on students, some of whom have joined lecturers on picket lines, “to look very carefully at the amount of their fee that is going into sorting out this dispute”.
The University of Southampton chief told reporters: “We would ask students to think about what the exact position is. We offered an average pay rise of 1.8% – with some staff at the lower end of the pay scale getting 3.65% – combined with the increase in the employers’ contributions to USS, with them taking those increases in a two to one ratio roughly. If you look at what we put on the table, they were real genuine offers for progress.”
While universities maintain they would prefer to avoid strikes, the vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes, Prof Fitt, cast doubt on their impact on students. According to figures collated by vice-chancellors, only one in three university staff members walked out, he said. Providers reported “low or no impact on teaching” during the last round of strikes, he added.
Earlier this year, the University of Sussex launched an ex-gratia scheme for students affected by strikes in November and December 2019. The scheme offers students the chance to claim as much as £100 for ‘significant’ distress and inconvenience.