Students have no viable route to claim fee refunds

David Ion likens students using their right to claim a refund on their tuition fees to Dante’s journey through the circles of hell.

David Ion is the Undergraduate Education Officer at Bristol SU

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator’s route to fee refunds – the only route being offered by the sector and government – is broken, and everybody knows it.

The complaints marathon that students have to undertake to reach compensation nirvana has byzantine levels of complexity, is cripplingly slow, and is designed to make it nearly impossible for students to win widespread refunds.

Its sole purpose is to give Michelle Donelan (and Kirsty Williams in Wales) an easy way to dodge any complaints about fees – offering students false security in the knowledge that there’s at least some process for getting fee refunds, and maybe even catching some of the most prolific campaigners for fee justice in the tentacles of overwhelming bureaucracy and procedure.

It banks on students being so isolated and disheartened by the process that they give up before they reach any meaningful conclusion. The process is a farce, and it reveals the contradiction at the heart of the commercialised education system – that universities cannot afford to operate as businesses, and must resort to underhand tactics to keep their “customers” at bay.

The complaint process hellscape

Trying to claim a fee refund can be likened to Dante’s journey through the circles of hell, but with fewer ancient-world A-listers and more bureaucracy. The problems start in the limbo of your local university complaints mechanism.

Across the sector, universities’ ability to process complaints is already at breaking point from increased strain created by the backlog of Covid complaints. If everybody who has a valid case for fee refunds were to submit a complaint, the system would be completely paralysed.

Once the complaint is noticed, it takes months to be investigated and go through increasingly strenuous panels. “Deadlines” set by the universities on when a complaint procedure ends might as well not exist. This is the same across the sector – one straightforward joint complaint from a group of students at a specialist arts institution took 9 months to get the “completion of procedures” letter needed to send it to the OIA.

After navigating the endless planes of the outer layer, complainants can graduate to the inner circles of the OIA. Its investigations can be just as slow as the local process, involving added bureaucracy and increasing the burden on the student. Students have described it as pseudo-legal in its complexity – and say that they have to act as their own lawyers. If the pit of hell isn’t trying to navigate an intensely bureaucratic process with no support alongside your studies (or your early career, as by this stage many students will have left education because the process is just that long) then I don’t know what is.

Define quality

But this isn’t just about process. Added to any complainant’s burden is the complete lack of guidance as to what constitutes a valid complaint.

Michelle Donelan has constantly urged students to complain if their degree isn’t “high quality”, or of “sufficient quality”, but this is about as useful as telling students to complain if they don’t like their lecturer. Quality is arbitrary, and the language lays the blame for the problems in education created by the pandemic at the door of teaching staff who students appreciate for having worked round the clock to move their teaching online.

It ignores the fact that what students are actually complaining about is that universities sold them a promise of “blended learning” that wasn’t delivered, and wider problems that have resulted in students losing valuable components and aspects of their educational experience – lost labs, facilities, equipment, studios, final year shows and field trips.

Some have linked “quality” to meeting a course’s learning outcomes. Helpfully for universities, this gives them the ability to fudge to students that you can, in fact, rehearse and perform a play just as well over zoom, or learn just as much about human anatomy from videos as dissections.

This approach to defining “quality” completely contradicts how universities have been justifying high fees to students for years – “your education is not just about passing exams”, “the library is your lab”, “you can’t do a degree just by watching lecture capture”. Universities would never use a definition of quality based solely on learning outcomes to talk about why students should pay for their degrees apart from to deny students the refunds they’re owed. It is another tool in their arsenal to stop student anger from reaching any meaningful outcome.

Biological concerns

It’s the widespread confusion that compounds it all. Imagine you’re a student studying Biology. You think your online practicals haven’t been worth the money – you think watching people do a practical is nothing like as useful or valuable as doing it yourself, and some of what you’ve had are YouTube videos that you could get for free anyway.

What are your rights?

  • Perhaps, in the university’s academic judgement, the teaching was of an appropriate academic standard and so the complaint can’t be upheld as it concerns academic judgement.
  • Perhaps, as the change in delivery method was minor, in the context of the pandemic the university acted reasonably and so the complaint can’t be upheld.
  • But then again, Biology practicals are an essential practical component of the course for students who want the lab experience and so even if they don’t count towards any formal learning or degree outcomes, they have to be re-run at some point or a partial compensation/refund issued.
  • Maybe the university asserts that the replacement was of sufficient quality but cannot provide an audit trail of how it has assured that quality so its “academic judgement” can’t be relied on.
  • Perhaps the university asserts that biology practicals are minor and anyway students were warned about changes to delivery and accepted those changes on (re)enrolment.
  • Or maybe the student was not clearly and sufficiently warned about the changes to delivery, wouldn’t have accepted the changes if they’d been fully aware and options had been provided, and sufficient attention was not drawn to the changes and their acceptance of them in the (re)enrolment process.

If I don’t know what the answer is – and nor do the professional staff at my SU – what hope does a student have of understanding what they can or should raise as a complaint?

Collective fee justice

As well as being impossible to navigate, the other major problem with the process is that it is designed for individual complaints about specific courses. Students must submit complaints specifically relating to their course or experience. Even proposed new “large group complaints” maintain the current focus on specific experiences, ensuring that pay-outs will never lead to large-scale blanket compensation.

But we are not dealing with isolated cases of low-quality teaching in some courses – all students’ educational experiences have been massively impacted by the pandemic. We are fighting for collective fee justice on behalf of all students in recognition that, across-the-board, educational experiences have been lost because of Covid and the entire class of Covid is owed compensation.

The individualised approach also means that government can afford to continue to ignore the problem, blaming any successful refund claims on individual circumstances created by courses or universities. The complaints process in its current form cannot possibly recognise the scale of student anger at extortionate fees continuing through the pandemic. Students are left with radical, collective action outside of the system as the only effective way to get their voice heard.

Cock-up or conspiracy?

It’s hard to believe that these problems are accidental. To students, they represent a concerted effort by the higher education sector and government to leave them with no viable route to claim large-scale fee compensation. All of the problems outlined have the same effect – protecting universities’ bottom line at the expense of students. It is a system that removes all control from students and hands it to universities, who are dictating the terms and regulating themselves.

It feels like the sector only wants to see students as consumers in so far as they can squeeze cash out of them. It is widely known that students themselves do not want to be treated as consumers – higher education should be free – but as long as students are being forced to pay for university, they must be given a viable route to redress. This gets to the heart of the contradictions in the marketised model for higher education laid bare by the pandemic – universities want all the perks of charging students tuition without any of the responsibility.

Where does this leave us?

Denying students a route to fee refunds could end up backfiring drastically on universities and the government. Having been denied any meaningful way to push for fee reimbursements within the system, students are beginning to look to other methods to fight for fee justice.

The action on many students’ lips that will cause VCs across the country sleepless nights is “fee strikes”. Spurred on by the success of the rent strike movement in university halls, many students are now seriously considering organising tuition fee strikes to fight their extortionate fees. This tactic could be devastating for the UK’s higher education sector, but without any viable options for fee refunds provided by the powers that be, can anybody be surprised that it has come to this?

My hope is that this crisis will wake universities up to the fact that charging fees leaves them open to the massive financial risk of refund claims, spurring new energy behind efforts for a different way to fund education. But while universities continue to insist that education has not been negatively affected by Covid, and continue to charge students full tuition, the “class of Covid” are going to be fighting with whatever methods are available to them to stand up for their rights and win the redress they are entitled to.

One response to “Students have no viable route to claim fee refunds

  1. I feel for all students studying at the moment, I really do. One thing you may not be aware of is that quite a few universities are making representations to government behind the scenes. They want the government to do something to acknowledge the impact the pandemic has had on student learning and experience. I see the current situation as universities and government as being in a game of chicken; the government want universities to stump up the cash for their own mishandling of the pandemic, whereas universities want the government to provide some sort of central restitution. To put this into context, if some universities do stump up cash for refunds to students they will be put into a difficult financial situation or may even go under, which probably doesn’t benefit their students! So universities are caught between something of a rock and a hard place. There are many staff who would like to issue refunds more pro-actively, but are being asked not to, because there is hope that government will make funding available or fear that the scale of the refund will endanger the institution.

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