University students call for tuition fee refunds amid government ‘mistreatment’ during pandemic

‘People are paying all this money, being miserable and sat staring at a computer screen all day,' one first-year says

Zoe Tidman
Tuesday 17 November 2020 18:40 GMT
MP says students have been 'greatly mistreated' by government

University students have called for tuition fee refunds over problems linked to coronavirus this term, as the government faces accusations of “mistreatment”. 

They told The Independent they felt online learning was not the same as face-to-face teaching, while campus facilities and resources were more difficult to access due to coronavirus. 

Parliament discussed tuition fees on Monday, after a petition calling for partial refunds due to coronavirus was signed by more than 200,000 people. “Students should not have to pay full tuition fees for online lectures, without experiencing university life,” the petition said. 

Students told The Independent they felt it would be fair to reduce how much they paid this year, as campus and courses adapted to deal with the pandemic, and agreed with an MP’s assessment they had been “mistreated” this year. 

“The online learning service is nothing like the experience one gets in person,” Barnaby Fournier, a first-year at the University of Manchester, said.

“Services like the library which come out of tuition fees have reduced spaces and hours,” he added. “Our fees should be reduced to at least the Open University fee level – around the £6,000 mark [per year] – since we are essentially getting the same service as them.” Annual tuition fees at Manchester are £9,250. 

The main library has been “operating a planned reopening schedule that already provides the largest number of bookable study spaces in the sector”, according to a university spokesperson. 

While many students have had a mix of online and face-to-face teaching this term, some have seen more classes pushed online during term as universities including Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester reacted to local coronavirus rates. 

Institutions have also been advised to go online after 9 December as part of plans to get students home for Christmas, so they can carry on with their studies away from campus. 

In response to the petition on tuition fee refunds, the government said: “Higher education providers must deliver high-quality courses. 

"If students are unhappy, they should first complain to their provider, or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.” 

One student at the University of Cambridge, who did not want to be named, said she felt all students should have refunds for this term. 

“I’m lucky I have a few in-person things but most people are paying all this money, being miserable and sat staring at a computer screen all day," she told The Independent

Isabelle Barnes, another student at the University of Manchester, said she thought a partial tuition refund would be fair, saying there was reduced access to resources and study spaces due to coronavirus, as well as issues with online learning.

“Staff have done their very best to deliver us the same quality of teaching, but it is just not possible with poor connections, technology glitches, and the inability to properly communicate as we would normally face-to-face," she told The Independent

Isabelle Barnes says there has been ‘poor connection’ and ‘technology glitches’ with online classes
Isabelle Barnes says there has been ‘poor connection’ and ‘technology glitches’ with online classes ( Isabelle Barnes / Instagram)

“I think if there isn’t at least a partial refund, that isn’t fair on students,” Anvee Bhutani, a student at the University of Oxford, also told The Independent. 

Jo Grady from the University and College Union (UCU) told The Independent: “We stand in solidarity with students, who are forced to see themselves as consumers – and are not getting what they thought they were paying for.” 

She added: “You cannot simply cut off funding for universities during a pandemic so any reduction in tuition fees or refunds would need to be made up by the government.”

The government has resisted a union’s calls to send all learning online during England’s national lockdown, saying institutions should work with local public health teams to work out the appropriate balance of remote and face-to-face teaching.

The universities minister said they were “prioritising students’ education” by keeping universities open – including campus facilities such as libraries – during lockdown, while pubs, restaurants and gyms have been ordered to shut.

During the debate on tuition fees on Monday, Labour MP Chris Evans criticised the government for having “greatly mistreated” students this term. 

“Blame for the rise in Covid cases, locked in accommodation in new cities with no support network, and not receiving the teaching they have paid for,” he said. “The government’s lack of engagement with these issues is severely damaging.”

Coronavirus outbreaks have erupted on campuses since the start of term, with the UCU tracking more than 44,000 cases in higher institutions since the start of term.

In October, the universities minister said students not following coronavirus guidance when socialising are “on the whole” behind spikes in cases at universities.

The University of Cambridge student, who asked to remain anonymous, said she “100 per cent” felt mistreated by the government. “They need to stop demonising young people for socialising,” she said. 

“The workload is hard to cope with all these other things to think about. It’s no fun and miserable," she told The Independent. “For a lot of us, this comes after being absolutely shafted with the A-level results and then we get blamed for the spread of coronavirus for socialising – which is perfectly natural to want to do.” 

Larissa Kennedy from the National Union for Students told The Independent: “You only have to look around to see that of course students have been mistreated by the government."

“We’ve been consistently ignored, and when we’re not ignored we’ve been scapegoated as responsible for the second wave,” she added. "It’s no wonder students are angry: we’re seeing a new wave of rent strikes, occupations and action.”

Mr Fournier – one of the students at the University of Manchester on rent strike, and who watched a building be occupied in protest last week – said he felt students had been “mistreated", telling The Independent he found out even more lessons were going online shortly after arriving on campus. 

The university said on Tuesday all students in their accomodation will get a two-week reduction in their rent next term.

A university spokesperson said senior staff met with student representatives over the weekend to discuss concerns, and new measures have since been announced including “a reduction in rent, more flexible accommodation contracts, and increased study spaces”. 

“We have given a commitment to continue to listen to and engage with student representatives,” the University of Manchester spokesperson added.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said:“We understand this has been a very difficult time for students, which is why we have prioritised their education and wellbeing from the start of this pandemic, by supporting universities to provide a blend of online and in-person learning in a Covid-secure way."

While universities are responsible for what fees they charge, the government has “made clear” they must maintain quality and academic standards, and the same quantity of tuition, if they continue to charge the maximum amount allowed, they said.

“They should ensure all students, regardless of their background, have the resources they need to study remotely," the DfE spokesperson added.

Universities UK, which represents around 140 institutions, told The Independent: “Most universities have continued offering some in-person teaching, support, and access to learning resources and study spaces where it is possible to deliver these in a physically distanced way, alongside online provision."

"Universities are committed to ensuring that all students can progress this year, and have spent much more compared to a ‘normal’ year on Covid-19 safety measures, enhanced digital learning platforms, and putting additional learning and wellbeing support in place."

A statement from the organisation added: “In these challenging times the health and safety of students and staff remains the priority.  All universities will continue following the latest government guidance and advice from local public health teams, and will keep the balance of in-person and online teaching under constant review.”

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