Evidence is mounting day by day that the decision to bring students back to campus in the middle of a pandemic was not the best one.
Despite the best efforts of universities to help those worst affected by hyper-local lockdowns, there’s been a continuous stream of stories about the less-than-ideal experience of the start of this term. And as more and more students start calling for a refund on their tuition fees, a huge gap has been exposed between students’ perception of what they pay for, where the sector believes the value is, and where the reality lies.
Ministers have suggested that students not receiving exactly the contact time promised would be entitled to claim a reduction in their fees. The legal position on this has been discussed elsewhere on Wonkhe, and the debate still rages on in the public sphere. As well as the highly-charged discussions taking place on radio phone-in shows, vocal public figures like Andrew Adonis are jumping in to state that students not receiving “full tuition” should be entitled to refunds.
Not now, Andrew
There are many reasons why Adonis’ take was ill-received by those in the higher education sector. University staff have been working exceptionally hard to prepare and deliver to a high standard in difficult circumstances. Costs to universities have, if anything, increased this year, meaning – on the face of it – a discount is impractical.
But it abundantly clear that a huge number of students will feel like they’re not getting what they thought they were paying for this year. Important aspects like the extra work by all kinds of staff (those delivering teaching, those dealing with Covid-19 preparations, those trying to recruit students in the middle of a pandemic…) don’t really factor into that feeling. And if they’re not thinking about the increased workload of the people they’re actually interacting with, they’re definitely not going to care about the ongoing costs to the university, or the structural problems with sector finance in the UK as a whole.
In the work we do with student communication teams, this is something we see often – students really aren’t concerned about the internal structures of their university, they see it all as one thing. If they contact the student support team about how to pay for their accommodation, they don’t know (or care) that they should really be getting in touch with the finance team. What happens behind the scenes isn’t something they care that much about – they just expect it to work.
The online experience
Here’s an analogy that kind of works: If my internet connection suddenly disappears, there might be engineers working really hard to fix it, extra cost to the company, etc – but none of that matters. I just want the service working. And if it doesn’t, I’d be within my rights to demand a refund.
Universities really are trying to find ways to deliver on what was promised, on the value the students want. It’s just that right now, with everything else going on, that message isn’t being said – or heard – enough.
A lot of the energy behind students’ calls for refunds can be placed – as has been the case throughout the pandemic – with the government. Their situation was poorly handled before they even arrived at university, in that the DfE encouraged the sector to push the “face-to-face teaching is the real university experience” message. Meaning that now, any move to online teaching feels like getting downgraded, when it’s not.
Unfortunately for universities, students may not share this interpretation. I’ve spoken to a lot of students over the past few months, and there’s been a notable shift in their attitude to the situation, and to who they blame for it.
Blame through time
Back in August, students saw the government at fault for the results fiasco, and saw universities as compassionate and empathetic for riding to students’ rescue. They accepted the need for online learning and reduced social contact, but – as we’ve seen – that didn’t mean they would continue to accept it. In the midst of a lockdown that feels almost directly targeted at students (and actually is, in some cases), it’s hard for them not to direct their ire at their institution, rather than the more remote government – and, in turn, start demanding some kind of recompense.
There’s long been a disconnect between the concept of “paying fees” and what the students actually get in return. The “value” of university varies hugely from person to person – some think they’re paying for the whole university experience, some for their contact hours, and some literally for a degree parchment. This lack of clarity means that now – when thousands of students, simultaneously, are not getting what they “paid for” – there are very few ready-made answers to explain where that value comes from.
So if an across-the-board fee reduction isn’t viable (because the government has made it very clear that they don’t see this as their responsibility), then the sector has to make a concerted effort to explain why, in ways that actually make sense to those affected. It’s got to be about more than staff time, university costs, or a dozen other things that students don’t see.
A coordinated, empathetic effort to help students is achievable. I don’t believe it’s impossible to develop a coordinated, empathetic effort to demonstrate the value of university to go with it.