Tuition fee refunds should be easier to pursue, but not automatic, MPs say

The Petitions Committee undertook a detailed investigation after petitions demanding a tuition fee refunds received more than 500,000 signatures

University students should not receive an automatic tuition fee refund for the disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, a committee of MPs has concluded, but government should shake-up the complaints process to make it easier to seek compensation.

The House of Commons Petitions Committee launched an investigation into tuition fee refunds after an e-petition signed by 347,000 triggered a debate in parliament. Despite huge student appetite, the panel of MPs concluded that a universal refund was out of the question because “in at least some cases” universities had delivered courses successfully. 

However, the cross-party committee questioned the effectiveness of current complaints procedures and recommended that the government change the rules to make it easier for students to seek a full or partial refund.

The Department for Education (DfE), in consultation with the sector’s regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), and the students’ ombudsman, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE), should establish a new system, the MPs concluded, because “the exact circumstances in which students should expect to receive a refund or be able to repeat part of their course are not clear”.

“It is not acceptable to expect individual students to seek satisfaction through existing complaints procedures or the courts,” the report added. 

An “independent and objective” assessment of good-quality teaching would be needed for arbitration purposes, the report recommended, and government should publicise the changes to encourage people to pursue complaints. Any changes to the system should be extended to the 2020/21 academic year, the report concluded, so that students next year could benefit from any Covid-19 repayment rules.

The government now has two months in which to consider and respond to the panel’s recommendations.

During its hearings, the committee spoke to the creator of the largest petition on this issue, Sophie Quinn, a final year student at Liverpool University, the universities minister Michelle Donelan, as well as representatives from the National Union of Students (NUS), the University and College Union (UCU), and Universities UK (UUK).

Committee chair Catherine McKinnell said: “Despite the hard work of lecturers and support staff, some universities have been unable to provide courses in a way that students feel is good value for money. Therefore, while we do not consider that a blanket refund for all students is necessarily required, we believe that the Government has a role in ensuring any student whose university experience has fallen short is compensated.”

It is critical that the government acts on these suggestions, but they must also go further
– Larissa Kennedy, NUS president

Government bailout recommended for tuition fee refunds

Prof Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor of Brunel University London and president of UUK, told the committee during its investigation that widespread tuition fee refunds would be “horrendous” for the sector.

Although the committee acknowledged the financial position universities were in as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the “serious and detrimental effect” widespread refunds would have, it concluded it “[was] not, however, a reason to prevent students from receiving any refunds to which they are entitled”. The bipartisan backbenchers suggested government should produce a package of support for universities to help them foot the bill.

“Given the importance of the higher education sector to the UK economy, and the exceptional circumstances facing both universities and university students, the government should consider providing additional funding to universities to enable them to pay any refunds university students are entitled to as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak,” the committee noted. 

The Petitions Committee’s report revealed that it had polled 330,000 of the petition signatories as part of its investigation; 89% of the 28,254 that responded were current students and only 7% described themselves as satisfied. The committee said those from disadvantaged backgrounds or studying practical courses had been acutely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report included extracts from the investigation’s survey. 

One student replied to the committee’s call for evidence: “Half my lecturers just stuck up last year’s recordings. The others made the effort to record from home their stuff or do it live and we could type questions they answered during the breaks […] we haven’t had loads of things marked […] without feedback, we go into exams blind as to what things we need to improve in essay techniques.”

Another wrote: “I don’t find the creation of interactive PowerPoints – which just slow note-taking and half the time don’t work to be a maintained standard. Nor is uploading last years, or a year further backs stream capture. I wasn’t paying for a lecture delivered to another cohort two years ago. Or when a capture is uploaded as audio only and they start talking about things on screen but with no indication of where they are pointing. Not to mention as a clinical course our hands on practicals being cut crucially short this year. It isn’t a case of will the medics, dentists and vets of this year come out as less trained individuals but a question of how much poorer will their [will] practice be.”

Larissa Kennedy, the newly-elected NUS national president, said the committee’s recommendations “would go a long way” to achieving the union’s aim of a universal Student Safety Net – a campaign for a government-funded package for learners launched by her predecessor Zamzam Ibrahim. 

“Although the report highlights some of our key asks for education leavers, the recent Treasury announcements for graduates do not go far enough and we would like to see an extended economic support package put in place,” Ms Kennedy said. 

“Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated the cracks in a broken higher education system, and hit students from disadvantaged and underrepresented communities the hardest. It is critical that the government acts on these suggestions, but they must also go further. We are calling for universal compensation, and for the government to protect our education sector from the failed project of marketisation before they lose the faith of millions of students,” she added.

“We are calling on the government to give clarity on students’ rights to a refund for their education. We also believe the government should consider funding universities to support them in reimbursing student’s fees where it is clear their experience and service has fallen short due to the incredibly challenging situation we have been facing,” Ms McKinnell summarised, as the committee filed its report with the government.

Read more: Refusal to consider tuition fee refunds next year ‘not reasonable’ – OIAHE

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