Only collectivism can solve the problem of fee refunds

In a few short weeks, everything has changed.

University campuses have closed, courses have been upended and students have faced a range of challenges from their accommodation to their assessments, and from their finances to their health.

Our nurses and allied health students have answered the call to enter their professions early to support the NHS in responding to the national emergency the pandemic has created, working tirelessly for the good of the public.

Safety net

The disruption to education and society is so great that only collective solutions will stop this generation of students losing out. This week, I launched our campaign for a Student Safety Net. Supported by findings from our 10,000-strong Coronavirus and Students Survey, we are leading students’ unions across the UK to demand a student safety net.

We are advocating for: access to a nationwide hardship fund of £60million, a grant package for education leavers who can’t find work to keep them in education and training, and the chance to redo, reimburse or write-off. This means all students in all parts of education being able to retake this year or, if they choose not to, having the government write-off a year of debt or reimburse a year of course, tuition or college fees.

This has to be funded by government – as the treasury ignores universities’ calls for a £2 billion bailout, the University and College Union and London Economics have shown that even this intervention might not be enough to prevent job losses or even closures across the sector. The students of today don’t want to take opportunities from the students of tomorrow by asking for compensation that would financially kill off our universities.

Redo, reimburse or write-off

I want to speak specifically about the ask to redo, reimburse or write-off here. Students have been asking the Universities Minister in Westminster, Michelle Donelan, repeatedly about the possibility of debt write-off or reimbursement. In response, she has stated: “students ordinarily should not expect any fee refund if they are receiving adequate online learning and support” but that they could complain internally and ultimately to the OIA if they don’t feel this is the case.

Over 330,000 people have signed a petition asking for this year’s fees to be refunded, and this demand was a very strong theme in the responses to our survey.

Students know how hard universities and colleges are working to support them and teach their courses as best they can. However, it would be impossible to provide adequate online learning for every student – and it’s unfair to ask students to judge that for themselves.

For some students, it’s simply not possible to engage in any sort of learning – for example, those with caring responsibilities coping with the closure of schools, or disabled students where the support they require cannot be provided, or students who simply don’t have access to the IT equipment they require or have good enough broadband.

For many of our members, online learning cannot replicate what they would have received under normal circumstances. In response to our Coronavirus and Students Survey, 78% of placement students said there was a negative impact on their education, along with 79% of vocational students.

These are the students and the skills that we’ve been told Britain needs to fill our skills gaps and invest in young people. We risk a generation of students completing them in the pandemic – and then being viewed by employers as less qualified because they haven’t been able to complete their hours.

A better solution

Given the scale of disruption and the inadequacies of online learning for many, surely we should allow students the choice of retaking their year and completing their training across all qualifications.

Furthermore, the Minister’s approach to debt write-off and complaints simply doesn’t work for students or for institutions. The scale of this problem is out of all proportion to that solution. The OIA does excellent and important work – but it’s intended for issues that affect individual students or course groups.

This problem affects every single student at every single institution and even if 10% of students complained this way it would overwhelm both their students’ union support mechanisms and the OIA processes. The courts do provide an alternative resolution mechanism, but these too are struggling to operate, and the law is an expensive and risky route for all concerned. None of us want to see this resolved in a way that encourages a culture of suing universities.

The minister’s approach is unfair. Students cannot be expected to be able to judge whether the alternative learning provided is “adequate” under law and argue their case with their institution. The Office for Students itself has recognised this problem of this significant power imbalance. In a board paper in November 2019, it notes:

It is not easy for students to identify instances where they have not received the service they were promised and to seek redress… We should, however, also consider whether a model that relies primarily on individual students challenging a provider for a breach of contract places a burden on students in an undesirable way.

Relying on a consumer-law based approach will fail students. We need a collective response, funded by the government, for the good of students and our sector.

Anger, hope, action

The reputation of UK higher education is at stake here. Home students paying £9,000 per year through student loans will be angry enough if there’s no recognition of the disruption caused this year, but international students paying often astronomical sums upfront will be even angrier.

We know the pandemic isn’t the fault of universities either but invoking force majeure clauses when they’ve been egged on to complain by OfS and Michelle Donelan will be unlikely to placate students. Recruitment will be hard enough in the next few years without the perception that when things go wrong, students have to pay anyway. The government has to urgently step in to reimburse these students.

Relying on a consumer-based individual approach fails students and fails institutions: only the government writing off debt and providing funding for reimbursements for those who pay up front can provide a fair solution. We don’t underestimate how significant a demand this is – but the scale of our market model’s inadequacy in the face of the pandemic means the response required has to be systemic. Instead of resisting reimbursements and write-offs, the sector should join us in calling for the funding for them.

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