Foot the bill for refunding student fees, Downing Street told

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Students affected by the Covid crisis deserve to receive money back on fees or rent, university leaders and the academics’ union say – and the government, not universities, should foot the bill.

Prof Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England in Bristol, says the government should offer rebates by cutting the amount that students have to repay for tuition fee and living-cost loans for this year. “That would be a very powerful signal to students and society as a whole,” he says.

Students have criticised Boris Johnson on social media for failing to mention universities when announcing the national lockdown on Monday. A petition calling for a cut to tuition fees from £9,250 to £3,000 has reached 508,000 signatures. And as students face another term learning alone in their bedrooms, paying for accommodation they are not allowed to return to, many are demanding a rebate.

West says that UWE’s costs, like those at other universities, have spiralled during the Covid crisis, including big spending increases on hardship funds for struggling students who can no longer top up their income with part-time work, investment to improve online learning and ensure everyone can access it, and a big increase in support for mental health and wellbeing.

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UWE refunded rent to students in university-owned halls during the March lockdown and is expected to announce on Friday a six-week discount on this term’s rent to all students who have been prevented from moving back by the current lockdown. But West points out these rebates will not help the “vast majority” of students who pay rent to private landlords, a situation echoed across the UK.

“Whatever we do, we will create inequalities, and that is a very big ethical dilemma that wasn’t resolved last year,” he says, adding that the only fair solution is for the government to cut maintenance loan debts. “My hope is that we reach a point where government and the university sector work together to recognise that all students have had a really difficult time and while everyone has done their best to provide a good student experience, it is a different experience from what might have been expected.”

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Prof Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group, says the government can not blame universities for the diminished student experience caused by the crisis. “If the government is making students at English universities stay at home under new lockdown rules, that isn’t about universities competing badly or offering a bad service, it is something the government has done,” he says.

Vice-chancellors are unhappy that the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, told parliament that fee refunds were a matter for universities, not the government. “Universities rely on funding via tuition fees, and if that income dries up we end up in an impossible position,” Riordan says.

He says that if the government decides student discounts are important, it must fund them by forgiving a portion of the loan, and this must not be clawed back from universities.

View image in fullscreenProf Steve West: universities’ costs have spiralled during Covid crisis. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/the Guardian

Students are still receiving a high-quality education at Cardiff, he says. “If I walked past our main student accommodation before Christmas I would see students playing sport or sitting outside and chatting in a socially distanced way. Like everyone they don’t have the same opportunities as in normal times but they are still able to socialise safely.”

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Peter Behan, a first-year business management student at the University of Derby, now at home in Widnes, says he is frustrated at the government’s lack of action. “In his speech about lockdown, Boris Johnson mentioned primary and secondary schools, colleges and nurseries. But he didn’t mention universities once. That made me really angry.”

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Behan says online teaching is not working for him and that, overall, students are having an experience worth half their £9,250-a-year fees. “I know a lot of students who are struggling. The government needs to at least acknowledge what we are going through, and it should be them supporting us with refunds.”

Joshua Connor, a first-year student of international relations and politics at the University of Lincoln, is debating whether to refuse to pay £2,000 for his empty room in halls this term. His father, who nearly died of Covid last year, can no longer work as a machine operator, and his mother lost her job during the crisis. “They can’t afford another mouth to feed and I want some money back on my rent so I can help out as I am being told to stay at home,” he says. “My quarrel isn’t with universities, who are doing what they can. It is with government. Instead of ignoring students, they should step up and support us.”

View image in fullscreenPeter Behan: ‘Boris Johnson didn’t mention universities once’

Vicky Blake, president of the University and College Union, says university leaders must join staff and student unions to push the government for “a proper bailout” that would let universities compensate students “without a further decimation of staffing in the sector”.

Blake says that during the crisis universities “pressured students to come to campus under the illusion that it was something approaching normal, when that was never going to be possible”.

However, staff have worked extremely hard to make the new online learning experience work, she says, with many providing more contact hours for students than would have been timetabled in an ordinary year. “Throughout this crisis, teaching and support staff have put in impossible hours to support students, dealing with hugely increased workloads alongside the needs of their own families. Many are on levels of hourly pay that might shock students if they knew.”

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Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ umbrella group, says universities and staff are doing all they can to support and teach students under “incredibly challenging and ever-changing circumstances”. “With government restrictions reducing the numbers of students returning to their term-time accommodation, now is the time for the government to seriously consider the financial implications for students and institutions and what support they will provide.”

But Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, predicts the government will refuse to pay. “If the prospect of fee remission is opened by government, they can sit back and watch universities tough it out with students,” he says. “This may not end well.”

View image in fullscreenVicky Blake: university leaders must join staff to push for a ‘proper bailout’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/the Guardian

The regulator, the Office for Students, says it has “no powers to award refunds” and universities should be reviewing whether any are due. Nicola Dandridge, its chief executive, says the impact of the pandemic on students has been profound and most universities have “worked tirelessly under great pressure” to maintain good quality teaching.

However, she says: “Where students are not receiving good-quality teaching, whether face to face or remote, then we will intervene. We intend to work with students and student unions over the next few months to identify where the quality of provision is not good enough.”

She says it is up to universities whether to offer refunds for university accommodation, and “what discussions they can have with private providers” to support students.