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CLASH OF COMMENTS: Should university tuition fees be reduced for this academic year?

Kristina Wemyss and William Hart take on this tough and important debate.

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YES- Kristina Wemyss

Students have not had the easiest of times during the pandemic. Rightly or wrongly, they have been blamed for the spread of coronavirus, their education has been jeopardised, and now they continue to be ripped off by their universities.

At present, much university teaching is being conducted online. In some students’ cases, all of their learning is being done in this way. Whether or not online learning will severely impact students’ futures is unclear at the moment - it is, of course, an “unprecedented time”. While no one can prove that it will be devastating for students, neither can anyone prove that online teaching will provide them with the same benefits as a conventional education.

What is certain is that many students feel neglected by their universities and the government. Over 203,500 students have signed a petition for tuition fees to be partially refunded for this academic year. Universities have had a matter of months to put new online programmes together, and while a lot of hard work has undoubtedly gone into creating them, there is no proof that these courses will be as effective. With this uncertainty, how can universities justify charging full tuition fees?

The classic argument which many people have drawn attention to is the fact that online courses such as degrees from the Open University do not charge nearly as much as in-person courses. In fact, the average full-time Open University undergraduate degree costs about £6,192 per year, in comparison to the £9,250 which campus-based degrees cost. This may not seem like much of a difference, but the important thing to keep in mind is that we did not sign up to an online degree.

What we did sign up for were the supposed ‘best years of our lives’. Meeting new people and forming new friendships is a vital part of the university experience. These institutions usually provide fantastic opportunities to meet people from different backgrounds. They are first and foremost meant to be places of growth; places to challenge your opinions in academic and social settings. These are the aspects of university which should mark a new chapter in your life. Without them, our experience is no different to an online course.

Furthermore, you don’t just pay for teaching from your tutor when you sign up to a university course; you pay for access to an academic environment, surrounded by like-minded peers who will challenge you and springboard off each other’s arguments. This cannot be achieved online; everything is more stilted and less conversational- as is to be expected over a screen. I have found that people feel far less inclined to contribute and many seem to have lost passion for their subjects. The university experience is also as much about improving your social, presentational and debating skills, which are all hampered at present by disjointed Zoom conversations and the lack of in-person contact. With the looming uncertainty as to whether students will be equipped with the skills that they need to succeed once they are thrust into an increasingly difficult job market, it is absurd that they should have to pay the normal amount.

Online platforms are simply not as mentally stimulating as the classroom environment, and they certainly don’t provide an adequate replacement.

NO- William Hart

Tuition fees should not be lowered for this academic year. Face-to-face teaching is reduced but a university’s outlays remain largely identical.

Most of a university’s funding comes from tuition fees; demanding a lower rate will harm the institutions we need to keep alive when they already face funding concerns and could lead to reduced investment and staff redundancies. Because of Brexit and Coronavirus, universities face uncertainty over the number of international students who will study here. It is therefore inappropriate to call for reduced fees based upon arguments around :“not being able to get the full university experience” and “reducing the amount of ‘debt’ upon graduation”. Both arguments, whilst well meant, are flawed.

The university experience means something different to everyone, but most would accept that it involves lectures, seminars and tutorials. While this is the expected university experience, the fact that we do not have full access to it this year does not justify the calls for reduced fees, especially as teaching is ongoing.

We are in unprecedented times and normal life cannot continue. Many school leavers have taken a gap-year so they can get a full university experience, leaving universities concerned about covering their overheads this year. The Russell Group will fare better than their newer counterparts. However, we should not assume they will weather the storm simply because of their elite status. A 2016 report by UniversitiesUK, the universities’ representative body, showed that in 2014-15, 47 per cent of teaching funding came from undergraduates, with a further 7 percent from postgraduates.These figures show the necessity of the fees we pay to ensure that our great academic institutions can continue to produce the world-leading research that has made them what they are today.

As for paying off the student loan, the argument holds very little water. The issue around student loans is how they are marketed as tuition fees, when in reality it is simply a 30-year tax on graduates when they are earning a reasonable wage. Loan repayments mean you will currently pay 9 per cent extra tax per month, and only on the amount of your income above the current threshold of £2,214 per month. With graduates expecting to find themselves in well-paid jobs, this tax does not have a drastic effect on total take home income once you are working.

A House of Commons briefing paper on student loan statistics, published in October 2020, showed that the average student will have £40,000 of debt and the Government only expects 25 per cent of students to pay this off in full. Therefore, for 75 per cent of students, a fee reduction for this year is pretty much meaningless. The only actual difference it will make is in the balance they have written-off in 30 years’ time. But for a higher education institution to potentially lose millions of pounds this year could be the difference between their survival and failure. Universities as institutions need to be protected so that free thought can continue to be cultivated in the UK. The best way to ensure that this can occur is to continue to pay our full tuition fees.

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