Lots to complain about at the debate over fees

Last night six MPs struggled to fill both the time and space allocated in Westminster Hall to hold a petitions committee debate on tuition fees, student representation and student rights signed by over half a million people.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Opening the debate, Tom Hunt (Ipswich/Con) noted that the text called for live debates to be held frequently between MPs and students. “Though in principle that sounds like quite a good idea”, he said, “where would it stop?”

Probably just as soon as they pitch up and only find five of you there, Tom.

Apsana Begum (Poplar and Limehouse, Lab) attempted to shoehorn in the fact that in 2013, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, committed to looking into options for alternative student finance for muslim students. Tom replied by asking whether it is the right thing for 50 percent of people to go to university.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough/Lab) said that students were questioning the value for money of online classes, Rachael Maskell (York Central/Lab and Co-op) noted that archaeology students were unable to go on digs and science students were unable to get into the labs, and the shadow minister for further and higher education Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington, Lab) claimed that he often asks “What was the key outcome of Keith Richards going to art school?”.

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West, SNP) said that in the future she’d like some university students to observe these debates – which might not produce the outcome she imagines.

Replying for the government, Michelle Donelan pointed to her announcement last week that the maximum undergraduate loan for living costs will be increased by a forecasted inflation of 2.3% for loans issued in the 2022-23 academic year, which won’t be much comfort to students facing higher bills this year or next. But not to worry – her tuition fees freeze for the past few years has meant that “a student on a three-year degree course has saved over £3,400” – as long as they’re one of a tiny minority of students who end up as the richest graduates who therefore pay off in full.

Donelan was pleased to see the issue of student representation raised, but could only really point to meeting the OfS student panel – and even then couldn’t actually point to anything it had influenced her over. But no matter – she knew that they were keen that “students know their rights with regard to higher education and can feel confident in exercising them”.

That’s interesting because after last year’s petitions committee debate on tuition fees, DfE promised that:

“DfE has set up a working group with the OIA, CMA, OfS, UUK and NUS to consider whether the range of existing guidance can be brought together to help students understand this complex area. The group will also consider whether additional guidance for students and providers is needed, and how the understanding of providers’ consumer law obligations can be further supported.”

Naturally no news emerged on this work. And when I submitted a Freedom of Information request on the work of the group referenced, I found it had spectacularly failed to do any of those things.

Maybe work’s been going on over the summer? Maybe not. In last night’s debate, Donelan said that students could complain “if they feel that they have not had the expected quality”, adding that refunds could be claimed if the “quality of learning has fallen below standards”. She must surely know by now that complaints concerning judgements of quality are the one thing that students can’t complain about in law?

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