If higher education is a market, we students deserve a Covid-19 refund

Two years ago, universities claimed to be selling the student experience. So where are our lockdown refunds, asks Maria Magdalena Gajewska

July 21, 2020
Wad of cash

A few weeks ago, the University of Cambridge announced that all its lectures would be delivered online until the end of the coming academic year. In an email sent to prospective students such as myself, the institution tried to soften the blow by assuring us that small-scale teaching, such as tutorials and seminars, would continue in person “as much as possible” (ie, subject to government advice). Still, the result is the same: next year’s students lose a key part of their university experience.

As an incoming PhD candidate, I am lucky; doctoral training is largely about research and individual tuition, not lectures or group study. For taught students, however, it is safe to assume that their education will suffer; they will struggle to focus as the lecturers struggle to adapt. Their ability to follow the curriculum will depend on the strength of their broadband connection.

But this issue goes much further than just lectures, affecting the gamut of student life. Will freshers be able to push through crowded student union fairs, signing up for countless societies whose events they will never attend? Will they be able to gather for the famous May balls or earn their blues in sporting events? Will they stay up late in packed libraries during exam season and celebrate its end in a pub? Doubtful.

Of course, none of this uncertainty is the university’s fault. We are in a global crisis and Cambridge is prioritising its students’ (and its staff’s) health. Holding lectures online is the sensible and moral thing to do, and many other universities are being urged on social media to follow suit. The university experience is not worth endangering human life.

Yet I cannot help but remember another time when “university experience” was a popular refrain. Two years ago, I was an MA student at University College London during the pension strikes by members of the University and College Union. Mine was only a one-year degree, so having lectures cancelled even a few times per term made a big difference. Most of us still rallied behind the staff, but a vocal minority – largely consisting of students paying international fees – abhorred what they felt was an impaired education and demanded their money back. UCL’s response? “You are not paying just for your teaching; you are paying for the university experience.”

If that were true, we should now get our money back. Yet, throughout the coronavirus crisis, fretful universities have repeated the categorical message that fees will not be reduced. There are good reasons for this: the health crisis means that returning to teaching-as-usual would be dangerous, if not legally impossible.

In addition, fee reductions would be detrimental to most universities’ finances. Higher education does not live on bread and God’s word alone; we, the students, understand that. Yet, in many countries, education is seen as a public good, and is delivered without staggering fees. In the UK, while students and universities may disagree on what product is being bought and sold – and change their positions according to convenience – it is indisputable that a product is being sold, be it “pure” education or the “university experience”.

The marketisation of higher education has already been discussed to death and it is hardly constructive to review it again. But I do wonder how these messages about online learning and no fee reductions would be communicated if, rather than as paying customers, the students were treated as members of a university community. After all, while students are at university to study, they are also in search of ethics and enlightenment.

Perhaps, rather than categorically refusing us refunds, the universities should come out with a clear and honest admission: “We cannot survive this without your fees, which finance our research and your teaching. We need your help.” Perhaps, as students, we would feel a sense of duty to respond, to keep our universities going through this unprecedented crisis for the common good.

But these are not the decisions we can make as customers, paying, in many cases, more than our annual rent in fees. Our opportunities for financial support are meagre or non-existent, our pastoral care is being stripped to the bare bones, and we see our staff struggle year after year on temporary contracts. How can we feel a sense of community when that community is being chipped away methodically by a ruthlessly efficient system that just about works when everything else is fine but has had its deficiencies laid bare by a global crisis?

By the very market logic that has been shoved down our throats, we, the students, have the right to demand our money back. If we do not, it is because something of higher value has survived this assault. If the universities can learn from this and treat us less like customers and more like partners, perhaps one year of impaired education will not be for nothing.

Maria Magdalena Gajewska is an incoming PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

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Reader's comments (7)

I agree, however it’s not the universities themselves that need to learn from this, it’s the Office for Students and thus the government that have told us students are now customers. I’d love to return to the days of students being members of an academic community, but the government sets the rules.
If HE was a market, there won't be price capping too - price should be negotiated between willing providers and willing buyers. So no, HE is not really a free market entity, not with the price capping anyway. Also, people are not forced to study degrees are they not? So I am not sure what is the point for most of this article? This talk of how the market 'shoves' the price of tuition fees down your throat is wrong. Don't blame others for the decisions you make. Even consumers of other products and goods - many are non-refundable (stated outright when consumers are making the purchase) and many have a time limit for refunds (e.g., 14 days). If any consumer thinks they are getting a raw deal, they can always withdraw from the program and stop paying immediately. How is that any different from buying a subscription service and then stopping it when they think they are getting a raw deal? All I see is a writer unwilling to bear the consequence of bad decisions... A doctoral student from Cambridge, no less. /sigh
No, I wouldn’t call your comment “well put”. I think you detracted from your argument by comparing the university system to some sort of a “magazine subscription” for students and in arguing against the students capable judgement of their own quality of education. No one is forced to go to university but it’s not like you can just “back out” when you realise it’s not suitably addressing certain things. As you won’t get the money back you have already put into it and you can’t change between universities easily if your particular one isn’t making adequate substitutes for the learning that is being missed. It is up to the university and it is in the power of the university to ensure that it meets challenges well and accounts for problems and adapts. Some of what you have said strikes me as interesting but the overwhelmingly negative tone and the character judgement of the author at the end completely overrides any criticality you could of had, your comment is not very constructive, I suggest remaining neutral next time and not placing some sort of value judgement on the author. Ultimately, if we don’t state what is inadequate in an institution and system that should be set up to anticipate and expect challenges and one that is made to work as a business then who is going to challenge it so that it works better? You? Obviously not you because your too busy sighing...
Well said deheuty.
This comment is the equivalent of sneering and going “yeeah”. Speak for yourself if you are going to speak at all.
Time indeed to get back to the concept of student as an apprentice in an academic community where we band together to learn and to teach. Student as 'customer' has distorted what universities are about, and it's all down to political meddling and the interference of the intellectually-bereft "Office for Students" who, as far as I can remember, has yet to make a helpful contribution to the world of higher education.
Pay the student the APPRENTICE RATE then. Challenge the government, not the students perception of what has been created for them and what power they have to act within it. As you say it is about all of us “banding together” to challenge the system collectively. If the university accepts their role as business then the student must accept their role as customer. To break that dynamic is to challenge collaboratively the system that the university institution has been placed under.

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