Tuition fee refunds: petition to be discussed by MPs

The House of Commons petitions committee will tomorrow hear from leading sector figures on the appeal that attracted 330,000 signatures

The House of Commons petitions committee will tomorrow hear from the student who started a petition calling for tuition fee refunds that attracted more than 330,000 signatures.

The petition argues that widespread disruption in the 2019/20 academic year– caused by two bouts of industrial action and the Covid-19 lockdown – has impacted teaching in UK universities.

The petitions committee will hear from Sophie Quinn, the creator of the petition, Zamzam Ibrahim, the national president of the National Union of Students (NUS), Dr Jo Grady, general secretary of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), and Prof Julia Buckingham, president of Universities UK (UUK) and vice-chancellor of Brunel University London.

“All students should be reimbursed of this year’s tuition fees as universities are now online only due to COVID-19, with only PowerPoints online for learning materials which is not worthy of up to £9,250,” the popular petition states.

“The extended strikes of this year have severely disrupted student-staff interaction and personalised help, with staff not replying to emails or available for meetings. Grading is also being delayed. Overall, university quality is poor this year and certainly not worth up to £9,250.”

At the latest count, the petition had attracted more than 336,000 signatures. Other, similar petitions have attracted more than 283,000 signatures.

Online learning ‘most appropriate option’ for majority of students

In response to the call for tuition fee refunds, the department for education (DfE) said: “We continue to work with the sector to make sure providers are able to make all reasonable efforts to enable students to continue their studies – including moving learning online – so that teaching and assessment can proceed, and qualifications can be awarded.”

The DfE added: “It would not be in most students’ interests to cancel teaching and make them repeat the year: for the vast majority of students, moving teaching and assessment online and allowing them to complete the year is the most appropriate option.”

The government said the Office for Students (OfS) was working with higher education providers (HEPs) to “maintain teaching quality standards”.

The pandemic has impacted every single student in the UK, and we need a national-level, government solution to this problem
– Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS

Tuition fee refunds petition to be discussed by MPs Zamzam Ibrahim
Zamzam Ibrahim has called for students to be reimbursed for a year’s tuition fees or be given the option to retake a year’s worth of studies.

The NUS has warned that the universities’ response to the coronavirus crisis had left many students feeling concerned or disgruntled. An NUS survey of 10,000 higher and further education students found that 20% who had been offered online learning did not agree that they were able to access it adequately.

NUS vice-president (higher education) Claire Sosienski Smith said on 30 April: “The pandemic has impacted every single student in the UK, and we need a national-level, government solution to this problem: that can only be the ability to redo the year at no extra cost, giving students the chance to make up for the education they are missing out on, or have their debt and fee payments written off or reimbursed.”


Related news: Government announces financial relief for universities


‘Students may well have a claim to a partial refund of tuition fees’

Last week, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued guidance on consumer contracts, cancellations and refunds. University Business approached the CMA for comment on how its guidance could impact the debate around tuition fee refunds.

A CMA spokesperson said the department was pursuing complaints in other sectors, but that its “statement on consumer contracts, cancellations and refunds, which aims to help consumers understand their rights, would also apply to students”.

“In most cases, the CMA would expect businesses to offer refunds where they cancel bookings or don’t provide any services, or where consumers are not allowed to use them because of lockdown restrictions.”

Universities that offer distance teaching as an alternative to face-to-face learning would not appear to be in breach of the CMA’s guidance.

The OfS has reminded HEPs to give “due regard to any guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on how to meet their obligations” during the Covid-19 lockdown.

In its guidance to universities, the OfS said HEPs should communicate with students via email when they make a change to provision, explaining the decision and the impact it could have. These communications must also detail how students can avoid these changes without being adversely affected.

The OfS guidance continues: “In considering complaints and appeals, providers should, in particular, consider whether students should be offered the opportunity to be taught and assessed in the normal way when the situation allows.”

If universities are to follow the regulator’s guidance, they might, therefore, consider offering dissatisfied students the chance to re-sit a year.

The regulator told providers on 25 March 2020 that it would only take regulatory action if there was “a serious breach of consumer protection law – for example, not notifying students of any planned changes”.

A key part of the draw or offer made by many universities is the extra-curricular activities that are ‘promised’ as part of the broader education experience. These extra-curricular activities are often a key part of students’ selection and decision-making process
– John Cassels, Fieldfisher

Tuition fee refunds: petition to be discussed by MPs online learning
Some students feel online tuition has not been an adequate replacement for face-to-face learning.

John Cassels, partner and co-head of competition, regulatory and trade at law firm Fieldfisher, told University Business that “students would have a claim in principle, at least for a partial refund of fees, though only if they have not received the services that the institution had contractually promised when the individual selected that seat of learning to pursue their studies”.

“For example, as part of their studies, many students sign up for online lectures; whether going fully online is a breach of what was promised by the university or other learning institution, will be a question of fact and degree,” he explained.

“A key part of the draw or offer made by many universities is the extra-curricular activities that are ‘promised’ as part of the broader education experience. These extra-curricular activities are often a key part of students’ selection and decision-making process.

“If these, as well as facilities that one could not access online, such as research labs, were a part of the contract between student and their chosen seat of learning, then those students may well have a claim to a partial refund of tuition fees regardless of what the universities minister says.”

‘Students should not expect’ tuition fee refunds

The virtual session of the committee will run from 15:30 to 16:30 on Thursday 7 May.

UUK would not offer University Business a pre-briefing but commented: “Universities are working hard in unprecedented times to provide remote teaching and support to ensure learning continues and students can achieve the required learning outcomes for their course of study.

“Huge efforts are ongoing so that this year’s finalists can graduate with a degree they can be proud of and which is in line with guidance from the bodies responsible for quality and standards.

“Where this support for learning is active and ongoing, UUK has explained that students should not expect any fee refund from their university, and this has been confirmed by the universities minister on several occasions.

“We appreciate these solutions are not perfect for all students but in this unprecedented situation the health and safety of staff and students is paramount. Current students who are not satisfied with the support they are getting should make this known to their university in the first instance.”

Where this support for learning is active and ongoing, UUK has explained that students should not expect any fee refund from their university, and this has been confirmed by the universities minister on several occasions
– Universities UK spokesperson

Speaking to University Business, Ms Grady said: “Staff across our universities have adapted to the current crisis under a lot of pressure, moving swiftly to ensure students can access teaching and support online and remotely.

“However, it’s not surprising that many students who have been forced to see themselves as consumers and lumbered with significant debts are frustrated that they’re not getting the experience they expected.”

Commenting on the disruption caused by strikes in winter 2019 and spring 2020, Ms Grady added: “Strike action is never taken lightly, but universities have repeatedly failed to deal with persistent issues over work overload, insecure contracts and pay inequality across the sector. Students understand that our working conditions are their learning conditions, and the support they offered during the strikes was phenomenal.”

She called on the government to “step up to the plate” and provide financial support for students and institutions facing hardship as a result of the pandemic.


Related news: Record number of complaints from students to ombudsman last year

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