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Universities should owe us some reimbursement

If students are consumers of a service, we should get basic consumer rights.

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The issue of strike reimbursement was the talk of all university students, at least before the COVID-19 crisis knocked us sideways. Given that we were not physically receiving the teaching that we had paid for, the expectation that we should be reimbursed is not unreasonable.

Yet last week, it was announced that at the University of York, the students ‘who experienced the most impact from industrial action’ would be able to claim some money back through the Individual Student Learning Opportunity Fund. Only students who lost 33% or more of their contact hours are eligible to claim, and the University estimates that this applies to around 2200 students, out of a total student body of over 18,000. The amount that can be claimed varies from £150 to £300, based on the amount of teaching the individual lost, and what they hope to spend the money on.

Given the high cost of contact hours, the maths simply doesn’t add up here. Over the course of the Spring strike, I received three contact hours a week, instead of my usual ten. By my estimates, each contact hour should cost me £40. So over the course of the Spring Term strikes alone, I missed out on roughly £1,120 worth of teaching.

To be told that we can apply for such a meagre amount of reimbursement is insulting, and will serve to benefit very few students. The email from John Robinson, the Vice-Chancellor for Learning, warns that:

‘Payments will be made on a first-come, first-served basis to those students who experienced the most impact as defined above; it is, therefore, possible that all funds will be disbursed before all applications have been considered, and/or before all applicants have decided to apply.’

So, those that meet the criteria are not even guaranteed to receive these funds, and the vast majority of students will gain nothing from the scheme. During the strikes, various petitions arose demanding a ‘clear paper trail’ of how withheld pay would be spent, if we would not be reimbursed. Instead, we have been given a wishy-washy solution, that does not balance out the financial loss incurred through the strikes. This begs the question, where has the rest of our money gone?

Throughout the term, it was insisted that we were still receiving adequate learning materials, in the form of lecture slides and set reading. If anything, the online learning experience that COVID-19 has forced upon us has highlighted that these replacement methods of learning are nothing short of inadequate. Just as this term’s teaching is not being delivered as promised, we were not given the complete learning experience during the strikes. University students are paying customers. If you didn’t receive the service that you’d paid for in any other scenario, would your first instinct not be that you were entitled to a refund?

It is not even clear what exactly this money can be spent on if you are lucky enough to be imbursed. Though students can claim for travel and accommodation costs associated with their learning opportunity, they cannot comprise the entire sum. So if someone were to want to undertake an unpaid internship on the other side of the country, they wouldn’t be eligible. The funds can also be used to pay in part for more expensive learning opportunities, which will be unrealistic for most students, given that many now face unexpected financial hardship in the wake of the pandemic.

The University themselves acknowledge that ‘travel is significantly restricted at the time this Fund is being launched’ and yet still suggest archival or research visits - despite the fact that currently, we cannot access our own University library. It’s astounding that the University would launch an initiative like this at such an uncertain time, where the majority of students will struggle to make the most of the fund. Given the volatility of the current situation, we don’t know how much more accessible these learning opportunities will become over the next twelve months. Third years will be even less able to make use of this fund, as the majority will be looking for either a graduate job or to begin a Master’s course in the next few months. Given that the fund cannot be used for ‘degree-awarding’ programs, how exactly are the class of 2020 supposed to benefit at all?

Certainly, times are tight for the University sector. The plea for a £2 billion bailout fell on deaf ears in the Treasury, despite a predicted £790 million shortfall this year. The argument has been made that if students want the university sector to survive, then they should suck it up and stop demanding their money back. But it should not fall on the student body to hold up the university sector on their shoulders; surely higher education should be the government’s priority.

Let’s not forget that the University was unwilling to reimburse tuition to students affected by strike action long before this pandemic reared its ugly head. This half-hearted financial response to the strikes is nothing more than a band-aid solution to mask the fact that students are being denied basic consumer rights.

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James Bithell Posted on Saturday 11 Jul 2020

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