Student fees: demands for refund after Covid disrupts teaching

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For Susan Clandillon, it is a matter of fairness. The 29-year-old, who has paid £9,250 out of her savings to study fashion design and business at the University of Brighton, says she has spent fewer than 18 days in total using the college’s workshops this academic year.

At least she had some limited access during the first term. Nathan Conboy, who is studying popular music production at Huddersfield, says he has not spent a single hour using the college’s specialist studio equipment that he and other fourth-year students were expecting to make use of in order to hone their recording skills.

“The lecturers are all trying their very best, and we really appreciate what they are doing, but some courses just can’t be taught online. It’s just not working,” Conboy says.

Both are among the thousands of students who are calling on the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to order tuition fee rebates for those on courses that have been seriously affected by Covid-19.

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Many students are asking why a government that has offered financial assistance to so many other groups in society – through the furlough scheme, benefits uprating, help for small and large businesses and so on – has all but abandoned those on degree courses.

Not only have students been expected to pay full fees of £9,250 a year, those in private rented accommodation have typically had to pay full rent, whether they have been living in their digs or not. Others have been forced further into debt as part-time work options all but disappeared overnight.

The National Union of Students says “students have been consistently exploited and ignored during this pandemic”, adding that they are seen as “cash cows” and treated like “pound signs rather than people”.

Williamson, though, was keener to talk about new legislation to enable academics and visiting speakers who are no-platformed to sue universities for infringements of free speech.

However, he will have to face another debate in parliament in the spring. A second petition calling on the government to lower this year’s fees from £9,250 to £3,000 has so far been signed by more than half a million people. In November, a similar one prompted a debate in the Commons. During that, ministers dismissed the mass rebate of fees and said it was up to universities to deal with complaints on an individual basis.

“The whole year has been incredibly frustrating,” says Clandillon, who is self-funding her fashion course after saving up while working for an environmental non-governmental organisation.

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“We all expected to be spending most days in workshops, using all the facilities including the sewing machines, mannequins, etc but the lockdowns have put paid to that. My tutors are making every effort to provide the best possible online learning environment – I have only praise for the staff – but it is not what the course promised. I don’t feel that I should be forced to complain about the people who will ultimately mark my final degree when none of the problems are of their making or their fault.”

View image in fullscreenSusan Clandillon, who is self-funding her fashion course after saving up, says: ‘The whole year has been incredibly frustrating.’ Photograph: Susan Clandillon

She points out that online-only courses such as those offered by the Open University charge tuition fees of £6,192 a year. The current petition calls on fees to be cut to £3,000 for this year’s students.

“If universities are now businesses, as we are so often told, we should be entitled to the same consumer protections as someone buying a new television or a new car. Gavin Williamson must take into account that students are getting a raw deal and do something,” she says.

In Huddersfield, Conboy, cites a very similar experience.

“Most of our course just can’t be taught online – you have to be in the room to hear the sounds, and a lot of students are at the end of their tether. Students who didn’t have decent laptops have found the hardship funds impossible to access and, instead, have had to go further into debt just to be able to carry on the course online. We are supposed to be spending the rest of the year working with the recording equipment to improve our employability. Everyone is very frustrated.”

Many universities were already struggling financially before the pandemic even hitSave the Student website’s Tom Allingham

Conboy, a student representative, has been in online talks with the university, and says he has come to the conclusion that the government and the universities are waiting for the other party to step in – meaning no action is being taken.

Tom Allingham at the money advice website Save the Student says it is unrealistic to expect the universities to start refunding students in large numbers.

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“It’s only fair that they should be offered at least a partial refund for a university experience that is almost incomparable to what was advertised – and it should be the government footing the bill. Universities across the UK have been doing the best job they can with the cards they’ve been dealt but many were already struggling financially before the pandemic even hit. To expect them to refund students rather than the government is not only unfair, it’s unrealistic.”

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View image in fullscreenNathan Conboy says: ‘Most of our course just can’t be taught online – you have to be in the room to hear the sounds, and a lot of students are at the end of their tether.’ Photograph: Nathan Conboy

The NUS says a long-term strategy is needed to underpin a new post-pandemic vision for education.

“In the meantime, where students are not receiving adequate education during Covid, they absolutely have the right to economic justice, which could include a refund or the ability to resit/redo at no additional cost,” it says.

A Department for Education spokesperson says: “This has been a very difficult time for students and we will continue to prioritise a full return to education settings as soon as possible.

“Universities are responsible for their tuition fees but the government has been clear that they are expected to maintain quality and academic standards, and the Office for Students monitors online teaching to ensure this happens. If a student has concerns, they should first contact their provider and, if unresolved, should seek advice from the Office of the Independent Adjudicator [OIA].”

We need coordinated action on rents, tuition fees, living costs and extra supportThe Green party’s Caroline Lucas

Meanwhile, pressure on ministers over this issue is only likely to grow. If university buildings do not reopen soon for in-person teaching, some students may become increasingly militant, and university complaints procedures could become overwhelmed.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP for Brighton and the vice-chair of parliament’s all-party group on students, is one of those calling on the government to rethink its stance.

“Students have been badly let down by the government, and we need coordinated action on rents, tuition fees, living costs and extra support,” she says. “The government must find a way to help universities to meet the costs of reimbursing fees, given students have not had anything like the teaching, experiences or supervision for which they have paid. It’s a straightforward matter of fairness.”

How to demand a tuition fee rebate

View image in fullscreenStudents have complained that some courses cannot be taught online. Photograph: Prostock-studio/Alamy

In 2015, prompted in part by a big rise in complaints from students, the Competition and Markets Authority informed the university sector that, like other big service providers, it had to comply with consumer rights legislation.

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Universities were told they had to give students clear and accurate information about courses, and ensure terms and conditions were fair – plus, put in place proper complaints procedures. A lot of students are likely to make use of these complaints procedures in the coming months.

Students on practical courses who have been unable to use facilities will have little trouble proving that this academic year was not “as described”. Others will have to weigh up whether they have received the tuition or course that was promised, and how important the lack of library access, etc was.

View image in fullscreenThe education secretary, Gavin Williamson. Photograph: Robert Bodman/AFP/Getty Images

The Uni Guide, which was formerly part of Which?, has a quick guide to how to complain. It says the student’s contract is the first port of call, as this will set out the university’s full complaints procedure. Any complaint should outline why you think there has been a breach of the contract and how this has affected you, as well as your preferred outcome, be it financial compensation or some other remedy, it says.

Students will need to present evidence of their claim – although that should not be hard this year. Faced with a lot of complaints, the universities may well try to push them all over to the OIA(or the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman), which hears appeals from students that have been through their university’s procedure.

The OIA has detailed FAQs on its webpage dedicated to coronavirus claims, which are worth a read. In 2017 the OIA received 1,635 complaints and found in favour – either partly or entirely – in 24% of cases. Pandemic claims could blow those figures out of the water.

Last year, lecturer strikes led to a string of payouts to students totalling more than £3m.

There is a strong argument for getting everyone on the same course to collectively complain, as it makes it harder for a university to ignore.

This article was amended on 23 February 2021 to remove an inaccurate suggestion that making a complaint could influence the awarding of a student’s degree, a process that is anonymised in most UK universities.