Universities minister Michelle Donelan has restated her opposition to government-backed tuition fee refunds for students affected by disruption triggered by industrial unrest and the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a Westminster Hall debate on 16 November, Ms Donelan told a small number of assembled parliamentarians that universal fee refunds would not be backed by the government, repeating a message she has delivered several times in recent months.
The debate on Monday comes after a string of petitions calling for tuition fee refunds garnered support from hundreds of thousands of signatories: the most recent has attracted support from more than 220,000. Similar petitions for refunds – that variously mention the impact of Covid and industrial action, and poor-quality online teaching – have amassed between 200,000 and 300,000 signatures.
Backbenchers from across the political divide, including Conservative MP Esther McVey and Labour MP Kim Johnson, called for a change to the government position. In response, Donelan said: “I wholeheartedly dispute the suggestion that all students are being let down.”
“Yes, tuition does look different because we are in the midst of a global pandemic. But different doesn’t have to mean a barrier. Universities have invested heavily in innovative and dynamic learning utilising technology. I’ve seen so many of these examples of interactive lessons, which staff have worked tirelessly, hour after hour, to produce.”
Donelan mentioned an Opinium survey for Unite Students that suggests more than eight in 10 first-year students are happy they did not defer this year.
The minister added that refunds “in reality would make very little difference to the money that students have in their pockets… because over 50% of students never pay back their full student debt”.
“Rather than focusing on widescale refunds… we as a government are focusing on the outcomes of the higher education experience; we are focusing on ensuring that the courses lead to qualifications. We are also working hard so that students are supported and have drawn on the expertise of the higher education sector through a task force that I set up.”
Donelan said the Office for the Independent Adjudicator was bringing forward plans to process group complaints this year, in anticipation of a larger number of requests for refunds this year. She also cited the findings of previous petitions committee inquiry that concluded: “While students who are entitled to a refund should be able to access information about how to claim, wide-scale refunds should not be the way forward – and we agree.”
Donelan cited several universities in her response, including the universities of Leeds and Northampton that had used webinar software and virtual classroom technologies to, in one instance, successfully replicate a mock courtroom scenario.
“The University of Sheffield Faculty of Engineering developed an approach to remote teaching of practical elements and shared with the sector. Some universities such as Cambridge have sent STEM students some items of lab equipment at home,” she added.
The debate comes as the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that refunding tuition fees would only benefit the highest-earning graduates and government coffers.
In a new briefing note addressing the issue of tuition fees refunds, the IFS also argues that there “is no clear case for compensating students but not other young people”.