Image Credit: Stephen Sweeney
Back in April, a petition calling for the Government to reimburse all student fees due to the impact of strikes and COVID-19 was circulated across the country. The petition gained heavy traction, receiving almost 350,000 signatures. Because of the “historic” number of signatures on the petition, the Government responded and the Petitions Committee also questioned the universities’ minister, Michelle Donelan, on how COVID-19 has impacted the higher education sector in a bid to raise students’ issues to the Government.
On 6 June, the Government published their response to the petition, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they rejected the request for the Government to reimburse students. In their response, they state that the “Government recognises the challenges facing students and supports them in their desire to continue receiving the best possible learning experience from our higher education (HE) providers.”
However, despite the fact that they “recognise the challenges” students are facing, they conclude that they “consider it in the best interests of all students that they receive a high-quality online education during this unprecedented period that allows them to progress and to complete their studies within the time period they had been anticipating”, and that “there are some fantastic and innovative examples of high-quality online learning being delivered by HE providers across the country.” Therefore, as we have already heard from the Government, their continued stance remains that students are not eligible for a refund because of the high quality of online teaching.
However, despite the momentous efforts universities have taken to provide adequate online education, there are some fundamental elements that cannot be replicated online, especially for more practical subjects. This was reflected in the petition itself, which states that “field trips have also been cancelled which our tuition fee was to pay for.” The Government does not discuss the impact of this loss of physical teaching in their response.
Instead, their response simply states that “universities are autonomous and responsible for setting their own fees… Any refund is a matter for universities, so we are not considering a write off of tuition fee loans.” As such, they state that if universities are “unable to facilitate good online tuition” then those universities “should seek to avoid charging students for any additional terms they may need to undergo as a consequence – avoiding effectively charging them twice.”
Their response highlights the importance of students receiving “a good standard of education” and further cites that students “are entitled to make a complaint if they feel that their HE provider has not taken sufficient steps to appropriately respond to this situation.”
On Thursday 11 June, the Petitions Committee questioned the Universities Minister regarding the impact of COVID-19 on students and what the Government can do because of this impact. Donelan stated that she can “completely understand” why students are frustrated regarding this issue. She further agrees that students “have consumer rights”, but further reiterates the point made in the Government response to the petition that “it is the universities, who are autonomous organisations, which set their own fees - the Government sets the maximum level, they can then charge a lower level - they have that freedom to do so. When universities decide to charge that full level, they will want to ensure that their courses are fit for purpose… so a refund is really a matter for universities rather than the Government.”
Donelan went on to say that “whether a student is entitled to a refund is also dependent on their individual contractual relationship and what they have signed up to do.” She highlights that “there is a process in place” for students who are dissatisfied with their tuition, and that they “should go to their university and make a formal complaint.” On the process of university complaints, she added that “all universities in line with consumer legislation do have to have that process in place and correspond with the student. If they don’t get to a satisfactory resolution they can go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator” who will look into the specific case of the student and examine whether refunds are needed.
The combined responses from the Government and the Universities Minister clearly shows that the Government’s stance on the issue of tuition reimbursement is that it is an issue for universities as individual organisations and students as consumers to deal with, and is not, therefore, a Governmental issue.