Students are entitled to tuition fee refunds over Covid

The (Westminster) government has responded to the House of Commons Petition Committee report on the impact of Covid-19 on students.

Its response accepts that some students are due partial or full tuition fee refunds over Covid disruption, and argues that “more must be done” to ensure that students know their rights.

The report followed an inquiry by the committee into concerns raised by thousands of students that they had not received the standard of education they felt they were entitled to expect, after over 350,000 had signed a parliamentary petition. We took a quick look at the committee’s initial report when it was published back in July.

In its response, the government accepts that students should be able to take action if they are not satisfied with their university’s response to the pandemic – but rejects the committee’s recommendation for a new centralised system which would enable all students to easily seek a full or partial refund of their tuition fees, or to repeat part of their course.

What we have here is a very deliberate attempt by government to frame complaints or claims for refunds as a collection of individual issues, rather than something collective or systemic:

This is because the question of whether an individual student is entitled to redress will depend in part on the specific contractual arrangements between them and their provider. It will also depend on the student’s individual circumstances, given that the move to online tuition will have been different for students on different courses and at different universities. The result is that each student’s situation is unique, and each case will depend on particular facts.

It’s correct, of course, that contracts are different everywhere – but should they be? The response neglects to mention that it has been unfulfilled government policy to standardise student contracts for over three years now, announced first when Jo Johnson was the minister and re-announced as recently as this time last year by Gavin Williamson. OfS was supposed to progress work here, but dragged its heels for almost two years, made a bit of pre-Christmas progress and then the pandemic hit.

The committee had also pointed out that students don’t really know their rights. Here there is some government agreement:

More must be done to ensure that students know their rights and can play an active part in holding their provider to account, to ensure that they are receiving the value for money which should be expected of our world-leading universities

On this, we learn that the Department for Education (DfE) has set up a working group with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA), the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the Office for Students (OfS), Universities UK (UUK) and the National Union of Students (NUS) to consider whether existing guidance on consumer rights can be brought together or added to and to explore “existing communications channels” and how these could be used to improve students’ understanding of their consumer rights. For complaints surrounding 2019/20, it’s a bit late now.

There’s lots of text on complaints, the role of the OIA and the ability of students to make a complaint. And there are numerous mentions of “quality” – but what neither the report nor the response does is address the merry-go-round of telling students they won’t get a refund if “the quality is there” and then refusing to look at complaints that surround academic judgements on quality.

Ultimately though this is really about whether to frame the problem identified in the petition as a series of “one offs”, or a major (and expensive to deal with) collective issue. Catherine McKinnell MP, chair of the petitions committee, said: “The Government’s rejection of this recommendation, and their failure to recognise the limitations of existing complaints processes, means they risk leaving students paying for a standard of education they’re simply not receiving”. What she’s saying is that our national system of individual, confidential, “Deal or No Deal” offers over student complaints that are obviously very common is by definition unfair – and it’s hard to argue with that.

A new petition is now up calling on universities to partially refund tuition fees for 2020/21, because the “quality of online lectures is not equal to face-to-face lectures”. Students should get the chance to “experience university life in full” with access to “societies, opportunities and chances to network”. At the time of writing it already has 188,361 signatures. It certainly doesn’t feel like a small collection of one-off gripes.

Meanwhile Martin “Money Saving Expert” (and former LSE SU sabbatical officer) Lewis has been advising students and their families again – this time in the form of a ten minute video on whether students can get a refund on their fees if they’re being taught online.

Basically, he argues that a discount on fees wouldn’t make much difference to the amount that people pay back given the loan cut off – but in doing so he ignores the vast numbers of students who pay upfront, assumes that the loan terms will never change (they can be changed at will by governments) and forgets those taking out postgraduate loans who are (in England and Wales) on less generous repayment systems – and so won’t have nearly as much written off under normal circumstances.

More surreal is that he doesn’t explain what students’ rights are, doesn’t mention the ombuds service, doesn’t mention the two regulators that could act, and fails to explain that students asserting their legal rights have a better chance of getting their university to resolve their concerns. It’s almost as if, having been on the taskforce to “sell” 9k fees back in 2011, Lewis is more interested in showing off about understanding the system than he is actually empowering students or their parents to get redress.

2 responses to “Students are entitled to tuition fee refunds over Covid

  1. A legal minefield! – see our WonkHE piece from 24 July on ‘Student consumers, refunds, discounts, and the law’ – David Palfreyman & Dennis Farrington (and we have been calling for a standardised, comprehensive, fair Uni-Studenf contract since the 1990s!).

  2. Yes indeed! The standard contract has been around for many years and now is a good time to activate it. With among other things, specific reference to exactly what a student receives for the fees. It is a relatively straightforward task, and does not require huge expenditure by individual institutions on m’learned friends. Another ‘working group’ cannot but complicate the issue.

Leave a Reply