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Tuition reimbursements denied due to ‘amazing degree of quality’ of online teaching

After the bailout that universities requested from the Government was rejected, students will not receive a refund for tuition from this term, despite the effects caused by online teaching

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On Monday it was announced that the plea made by universities across the UK for a ‘multi-billion pound bailout’ was refused. Universities will also be allowed to charge students the full cost of their tuition fees during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced higher education to move onto online platforms.

Instead of receiving a grant from the Government, universities have been told that the payment of £2.6 billion in tuition fees will be granted early, instead of being paid at the beginning of the next academic year. The Government is also providing universities with £100 million in research funding. This money is to help universities deal with the financial loss as a result of both the cap, which will be placed upon the number of British and EU students which universities are allowed to enrol (which will be in place for at least one year) as well as the significant financial loss from reduced international students’ fees.

The grant which universities could have been given to help with this was rejected potentially due to the fact that the Government believes students do not require reimbursement for this academic year, and therefore believe that universities can still charge students the full tuition price. In allowing institutions to charge full tuition fees, the Government hopes that the financial situation of universities across the UK will be mitigated. Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said that:

“We have already seen, over the last few months, courses being delivered online and virtually to an amazing degree of quality, and I know the efforts made across the sector to facilitate that”, and continued by stating that “we’ve always said that we don’t believe students would be entitled to reimbursement for tuition fees if the quality is there.” Therefore, the Government believes the quality of online teaching is at the same level as that of face-to-face teaching, and therefore students do not need to be refunded. Refunds will only be given “if the quality isn’t there”, but it is not clear yet how this will be judged. Donelan, however, stated that “there are processes that [students] can follow” if they believe their online teaching to be inadequate.

This, while helping universities and their funding, does not give much support to students. As a result of this move to online teaching, students across the country are facing fresh challenges with the new form of teaching, ranging from technical issues to a lack of the physical resources usually provided by libraries. Students across the country, therefore, feel as though reimbursements are needed due to the effect this is having on their studies, whether or not the teaching quality of the online platform is of a good quality.

The NUS (National Union for Students) has started a campaign to fight for reimbursement of fees for students, which Nouse reported on last week. These students, as well as the NUS, disagree with the universities minister in saying that the online teaching is to an “amazing degree of quality”, and thus that they are not eligible for tuition refunds. While universities across the UK are doing the best they can with the challenges the pandemic is causing, the online platform cannot replace the quality of face-to-face teaching or the use of physical university resources for students, such as libraries, nor the fact that students did not sign up for online courses. The online platform is also unsuited to students who do not have adequate access to technology and WIFI, yet these students will most likely not be eligible for a refund because the quality of the teaching is still “amazing”.

The University and College Union’s (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, has stated that the Government’s response to the call for a bailot “does not deliver the protection or stability that students, staff and the communities they serve so desperately need.” This would argue that the Government’s lack of support is negatively affecting staff as well as students.

She further added that “instead of kicking the can down the road, the Government must underwrite funding lost from a fall in domestic and international student numbers and remove incentives for universities to compete against each other at a time when we need to be pulling together.”

This, however, does not help students who faced a significant loss of teaching hours before the COVID-19 pandemic due to lecturer strikes in both Autumn and Spring terms of this past academic year. This loss of teaching combined with the issues facing students due to online teaching has left many students demanding refunds for tuition, which the UCU’s statement does not seem to cover.

We contacted YUSU Academic Officer, Giang Nguyen, as to whether she believes students should be paying tuition fees for this term, she responded by stating that:

“The disruption to the learning, teaching and broader student experience is undoubtedly not what people expected in return for their tuition fees and debts. That is compounded further by the move to online learning coming after industrial action that adversely impacted students' study and experience. In that regard I think the government needs to consider whether it can reasonably expect students to continue to be indebted to the government for the full tuition fees.

“It’s really disappointing that the government's response to the UK proposal showed very little support to Universities and no support to students in light of the pandemic.”

Nouse also contacted the University, when we asked whether they believed students deserved a refund for this term, they said:

“We have delivered quality teaching, assessment and progression online, underpinned by a comprehensive programme of pastoral, wellbeing and academic support. We will also be starting our new academic year in September as planned. Our key priority is that all our students remain safe and well, and are able to conduct their studies to the best of their abilities in these unprecedented times.”

We also enquired as to whether or not the University agrees with the statement made by the UCU that this package by the Government does not provide students and staff with stability and security. Their representative said that:

“We are continuing to work hard through Universities UK and the Russell Group to secure Government support so that we can better manage the serious financial challenges posed by Covid-19.

“This is a fast-moving situation and we will adjust our financial forecasting in response to new information on student recruitment or new Government policies.”

A petition for a reimbursement of fees for this academic year is currently circulating, which is based on the loss of teaching from both the strikes and COVID-19, the petition currently has over 300,000 signatures (at the time of writing). On this petition, Jones also told us that “the UK wide student petition has now triggered a parliamentary debate. As a result the Parliamentary Petitions Committee are looking at the impact of covid-19 on students and would like to hear student views. We would encourage students to share their views on the survey before the deadline of May 15th. The survey is available here

A link to the petition can be found here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/302855.

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