The Department for Education (DfE) has rejected a parliamentary committee’s recommendation for a “new centralised system” to process appeals for tuition fee refunds, arguing that the student ombudsman is developing a scheme in the event the number of complainants to the service increases this year.
The statement from the DfE follows a report from the House of Commons petitions committee on the impact of Covid-19 and industrial action on higher education students last year, after a petition that called for the government to reimburse all students of 2019/20 tuition fees accrued more than 352,000 signatures.
In response, the DfE said the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) is developing a system designed to consider a “large group complaints collectively rather than focusing on individual aspects”. “[The scheme] would be designed specifically to promote speed and efficiency whilst maintaining basic principles of fairness. The intention would be to use this approach if indications are that a large number of students intend to progress complaints about disruption caused by Covid-19,” the ministry added.
This “bespoke approach” to handling complaints made by very large groups of students would be used in the case of widespread disruption, “such as the pandemic or industrial action…campus closure, or market exit”, the DfE continued. An Institute for Financial Studies (IFS) report earlier this year warned that 13 universities were at risk of bankruptcy following the Covid-19 pandemic, which could trigger a market exit.
The committee’s suggestion of a centralised system for handling refunds was rejected by the ministry because of the “individualised nature of student contracts and student circumstances”. The DfE also rejected the suggestion the government should “right off” all tuition fee loans for the 2019/20 academic year, arguing it had provided “at least £700m” to support the sector’s teaching and learning in the last academic year.
The petitions committee launched its investigation after Covid-19 foreshortened face-to-face teaching last term. Industrial action in 2019 and 2020 saw staff walkout at more than 70 universities across the UK. Annual tuition fees of £9,250 were “not worthy” of what many universities had offered students as an alternative, the petition argued.
The government’s rejection of this recommendation, and their failure to recognise the limitations of existing complaints processes, means they risk leaving students paying for a standard of education they’re simply not receiving
– Catherine McKinnell MP, petitions committee
Commenting on the DfE’s response, petitions committee chair Catherine McKinnell said: ““A vital recommendation in our report was the establishment of a new system, which would facilitate students seeking a full or partial refund of their tuition fees, or to repeat part of their course. The government’s rejection of this recommendation, and their failure to recognise the limitations of existing complaints processes, means they risk leaving students paying for a standard of education they’re simply not receiving.
“Whilst we do acknowledge some of the positive steps the Government is taking, it remains to be seen whether these will enable students to secure refunds where they are entitled to them, and whether universities will be able to weather the storm financially.”
The OIA’s “bespoke system” raises the prospect that universities considered to have failed students, or groups of students, could still become liable for financial penalties. The ombudsman will only handle complaints if a student is unsatisfied with the response received from their provider. The DfE said it was “working closely” with Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to understand the numbers of students who are making formal complaints about their educational experience during the summer term.
Earlier this year, the OIA reported a record number of students referring complaints to its service in 2018/19.
In June, the ombudsman published guidance that explained how it will assess complaints during the 2020/21 academic year, as universities prepare to roll out blended learning to millions of learners. While the OIA urged universities to offer “services consistent with students’ reasonable expectations”, it added: ““A blanket refusal to consider tuition fee refunds in any circumstances is not reasonable. There may be groups of students that are particularly affected, and providers should take steps to identify those groups and address their issues. But they also need to consider concerns raised by students about their individual circumstances.”