Master’s students are owed deferrals and refunds

Postgraduate students – in particular Master’s students – are at the epicentre of the financial crisis as universities respond to Covid-19.

Despite the terrible circumstances that prospective and returning students have found themselves in, all universities are still currently planning to charge full fees for next term, even if the teaching and learning programmes only happen remotely.

The government has supported this position on the condition online courses are “of good quality, fit for purpose and help students progress towards their qualification”. A number of UK institutions have, up until now, insisted this will be the case, and they rely on a large number of Master’s students, traditionally mostly international or overseas students, to subsidise teaching and research.

But little to no effort has been made so far to consider a fees refund or deferral of Master’s-taught programmes for those students disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

International cash cows

A report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) earlier this month points out that, at taught Master’s level, international students play a particularly important role, with a majority (53%) from outside the UK. The same report also points out many universities make use of higher international postgraduate fees to subsidise courses for home students, as well as to plug shortfalls in research budgets.

As Nick Hillman, director of HEPI which produced the report, clearly pointed out, UK universities subsidise teaching and research by using the “surplus on teaching international students”, particularly Master’s. On average, international students pay around £5,100 per year more than it costs to educate them, around £4,250 of which typically goes towards universities’ research budgets. Income from international students is far too often the main concern of universities and higher education institutes.

The HEPI 2019 report had previously shown the tax and National Insurance payments of just one cohort of international students who stay in the UK to work after their studies amounts to £3.2 billion, with a Universities UK 2017 report also highlighting how international students generated £25 billion to the UK economy in 2014-15​.

On top of the significant access barriers that postgraduate and international students usually have to overcome, the National Union of Students (NUS) agrees this section of the student population is often, and should not be, treated as “cash cows” in the UK. Students from outside the EU pay up to four times the fees charged to UK students.

Some international undergraduates pay up to £35,000 a year – more than three times the amount paid by UK-domiciled students. University fees for international Master’s students are also not fixed and disproportionately higher, usually by two or three times, than fees for UK-based students, and are often coupled with extra “settling in” fees for international students only.

Given the current circumstances with Covid-19, a general feeling that Master’s students have been, and will be, financially exploited has been perceived across institutions – with universities extracting large amounts in fee income while failing to provide financial support for them during study, engage meaningfully on their concerns, or provide good enough quality education.

Teaching and financial expectations

Online provision of some courses at a comparable quality to that advertised and expected will be impossible. This includes many research courses (e.g. MPhil, MRes and equivalents) and single-year Master’s courses. Even though leadership and staff of universities are working very hard to make teaching available to students, (in some cases bringing themselves to the verge of a burnout) keeping the same quality of teaching will be simply not possible – limited to pre-recorded lectures and webinars.

Some faculties and departments have not had the time to arrange online seminars, particularly those taking into account the need to set up fully-accessible resources and platforms, and others only had enough time to upload previously-recorded lectures from past years.

As a result many current postgraduate students, especially the deluxe-fee-paying international student, believe the teaching, opportunities and facilities that they signed up for have changed drastically since they started their programmes.

But this is not just about consumer rights. Universities need to remember they have a duty of care to their students. Students’ ability to pay fees, and the terms on which they agreed to pay them at the start of the year, have changed markedly. For instance, the loss of supplementary income for Master’s students, whether part-time or full-time, is particularly acute.

This is reflected in the collapse of job opportunities, including the hospitality sector, internships, and casual work such as temporary teaching and tutoring – historically the most popular source of income for students in need of flexible work. This can only be done in a very limited way, or not at all, from home.

In addition, for many international students, the value of savings and loans held in their national currencies have drastically fallen compared to the British pound. We know international students already pay far higher fees than domestic students, which is on top of rent and living expenses.

If they combine savings, loans and support from friends and family, and working part-time jobs, international students could normally just about afford the many thousands of pounds extra needed to cover the cost of their education. Under the current circumstances, this is not possible anymore, and universities must acknowledge this.

Universities are not currently giving clear information to students about what to expect, to allow them to decide whether to take up offers of study in October 2020, and now have strong financial disincentives from being upfront with students about this.

Refunds and deferrals

As it becomes clearer that “business as usual” at universities will not be possible by the next academic term, we need a far clearer stance on the issue of tuition fees, for current and new students, as well as whether new students should be allowed to defer – as well as whether current students should be allowed to repeat all, or some, of the last year. Guidance by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) tells us consumers could be given partial refunds for services missed because of Covid-19, and this has led some in the sector to question if this means students at UK universities can claim refunds for tuition fees under consumer protection law.

There has been some movement in the past weeks to make sure Master’s students receive the support they deserve, including refunds, the opportunity to retake part of the year, or to defer their academic offer. The CMA released a statement on consumer contracts, cancellations and refunds, which said where consumers had not been given all the services they paid for they should be eligible for partial refunds. CMA confirmed that this guidance would apply to students, including both international and domestic students at UK universities.

NUS has also launched a national campaign (the Student Safety Net campaign) which raises some of these issues. It argues that students should be able to repeat this year or be reimbursed the costs. The NUS campaign, however, does not cover prospective students.

Students who have difficulty continuing with their learning – including because of illness, caring responsibilities or lack of access to IT – or who are not satisfied with the alternative provision and support they are getting, should make this known to their university in the first instance through their formal complaint route. Every university will have their own established process for managing complaints, and will be mindful of the extenuating circumstances.

The university should do what they can to address the complaint. But if students are not happy with the result, they can take their complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator in England and Wales, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman or to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman.

It is time to act – now.

It is a really difficult moment for universities and the education sector. The pandemic and its impact are not the responsibility of universities. However, it is also no fault of the student either, who could be paying off student loans for tuition for decades to come, become stranded or at risk, and they should not be forced to carry the financial burden on their shoulders.

As Educating Beyond Borders has pointed out, UK universities claim to be mindful of the plight of students who have nowhere else to go, but fundamental issues for students contacting charities, such as dwindling food or worrying about accommodation contracts ending soon, are still a reality on the ground. In the face of this crisis affecting international and postgraduate students, with tens of thousands of cases of students stranded or at risk, how can universities not see that they are disregarding them, and that their strategies to support Master’s students is failing?

Universities should accept that some aspects of Master’s courses cannot be delivered online. All Master’s offer-holders should be allowed to defer by a year, if they choose, based on the information from the university. Current students who have not received a core part of their current qualification should receive a partial fee refund or be allowed to retake part of the year when that becomes possible. Current Master’s students who have not received a core part of their current qualification should receive a partial fee refund, or be allowed to redo part of the year when that becomes possible. These may be hard to swallow for institutions, but are self-evident truths if we want to ensure fairness for all postgraduate students.

Everyone can sympathise with universities as they struggle to work through the consequences of the monumental challenges we are facing. But the solutions must not rest solely on the shoulders of postgraduate and international students who have propped up their system for too long already.

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