The House of Commons Petitions Committee today held a formal oral evidence session on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on students and universities, and whether providers should be refunding tuition fees.
The virtual event was triggered by student Sophie Quinn’s petition to reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19 which received over 330,000 signatures.
Ms Quinn gave evidence to the committee alongside National Union of Students (NUS) president Zamzam Ibrahim, Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) general secretary, Dr Jo Grady and Professor Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London.
During the discussion, Ms Quinn and Ms Ibrahim spoke of the anger and frustration felt by students, with the former saying the hearing was “a step in the right direction” and the latter reasserting the NUS view that students should have the option of resitting a year, or having their debts written off or reimbursed.
Both Ms Grady and Ms Buckingham praised the efforts of university staff to shift their teaching online and support students during lockdown.
The UUK chief acknowledged the pain felt by students, especially those in their final year, saying: “My heart goes out to them. I can still think back to my final years [sic] at university and what a mixed experience that final term was, the horror of finals mixed with the joy of all the celebrations.
“And they are missing out on a rite of passage which I think is very unfortunate.”
I really do believe the sector has a very, very important part to play going forward in helping the recovery of the economy
Asked for her feelings on tuition fee refunds, however, Ms Buckingham pointed to the already-precarious financial position of the sector and warned refunds could have devastating knock-on effects on the country itself.
“It would put many [universities] under severe financial pressure. If we had to refund fees… it could put some institutions at risk and then there would be all the downstream effects of that, which would not just affect the students in that institution, for whom it would be horrendous, it would be the staff and the local economies.
“It would also be the capacity of the sector to contribute to the recovery from Covid, and I really do believe the sector has a very, very important part to play going forward in helping the recovery of the economy and in helping the social fabric of the country to recover.
“We are responsible for producing highly skilled individuals who go into jobs in the health service and in the public sector, the private sector, and, of course, we are also the institution to drive research and innovation – so I would be very concerned about the financial risk to the sector.”
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