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MPs Debate On Refunding Students’ Tuition Fees

'Education is not a business' poster at a student protest in Parliament Square, London, 2010.
Joe Hughes

Last week, MPs considered the proposals of a raft of student petitions concerning the refunding of tuition fees. Collectively reaching 980,000 signatories, the petitions advocate a range of compensation options, including the partial or full refund of fees for the 2019/20 and/or 2020/21 academic years.

It seems unlikely that blanket compensation will be seriously considered by university heads

Sympathetic representatives from all parties voiced students’ frustrations during the debate and claimed that support from universities and the government had not been sufficient and warranted reimbursement.  Petitioners and politicians cite the diminished teaching quality and delivery, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and last year’s UCU strike action, as representing a failure to fulfil academic promises.

Despite recent positive murmurs, it seems unlikely that blanket compensation will be seriously considered by university heads or at the top levels of government. Upon reviewing nearly 200 individual complaints, The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) has not recommended blanket tuition fee refunds, and only instructed institutions to compensate students in cases where that had been an explicit lack of engagement with the student. There is expected to be an increase in complaints referred to the ombudsman as internal university complaints procedures are exhausted. 

Furthermore, the economic argument for a wholesale rebate seems unconvincing, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has outlined. The most plausible approach is as follows: universities would repay an agreed sum back to the student loans companies who would in turn write off the respective portion of student debt – not the immediate cash injection which some had campaigned for.

Aside from potentially crippling the already fragile finances of some universities, the reduced debt balance would only award a tangible benefit to high earning graduates (and those who have not taken out a loan who may receive direct compensation).

In actuality, as the government owns the loans companies and, in this scenario, would have to write off fewer debts once the 30-year repayment window has expired, it is in fact the Treasury that would see the greatest benefit, not students.

Once the macroeconomics is considered, this proposal is not politically attractive.

This may however strengthen the case for direct compensation now (rather than reduced debt later) and targeted petitioning still continues.

One such example is a petition started by University of Nottingham student Matthew Goodwin-Freeman which takes particular issue with the alleged exploitation of students by enticing them back to university in September under the pretence of a programme of  ‘blended learning’; this petition contends that this was a mirage. It also highlights a specific failing not only in learning outcomes, but in facilitating that learning by leaving teaching staff woefully ill-equipped during the transition to online delivery.

Unlike other institutions nationwide, on-campus services such as the library have remained open throughout

During a dialogue with the UoN Student’s Union, Vice Chancellor Shearer West admitted that the University could have done more to support students forced to isolate but doubled- down on the “blended approach to teaching”. Citing the University’s priority on public health, Professor West extolled the admittedly impressive infrastructure (including several in-house testing facilities) that the University has established.

It should also be noted that, unlike other institutions nationwide, on-campus services such as the library have remained open throughout.

Professor West also echoed the opposition to the vilification of students and expressed her sympathy that students are not only bearing the brunt of the consequences of the pandemic now but will do so for many years to come. The discussion between the University executive and the SU does not appear to have reached concrete positive steps for improvement and has been undermined by national restrictions.

Many would affirm that university was simply too expensive pre-Covid and that the business model of the Higher Education system is fundamentally flawed by its over-reliance on student fees.

The University of Nottingham secures over 50% of its funding from tuition charges alone, and in the University’s financial statement last year a proposal to reduce fees to £7,500 was condemned for its potentially catastrophic effect on finances. A fall in revenue next year, and any remittance back to loans companies this year could collapse the Higher Education system.

The response to this growing challenge has been seen as ineffective by many

An important factor to consider in the call for financial reimbursement is that the University does not sell a student experience and students should not project their frustrations about the lack of social experience onto the University.

Where support could have been more forthcoming is in combatting the immensely detrimental mental health implications faced by scores of students this year. Despite commitments to prioritise these concerns by the Minister for Universities Michelle Donelan, the fact remains that the response to this growing challenge has been seen as ineffective by many. 

Whether the moral imperatives of reimbursing students will supersede the economic, political and structural directives to the contrary remains to be seen.

Joe Hughes 

Featured image courtesy of  BobBob on Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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