English universities told to consider refunds as Covid cases rise

Regulator intervenes as some institutions suspend in-person teaching

September 28, 2020
Social distancing sign
Source: iStock

English universities should consider issuing partial tuition fee refunds if teaching is disrupted by Covid-19, the sector regulator has said.

The Office for Students (OfS) urged institutions against a “blanket policy” of refusing refunds as growing numbers of coronavirus cases were reported on UK campuses, and thousands of students were placed in self-isolation.

A small number of institutions have already suspended in-person teaching. Aberystwyth University said on 28 September that teaching would be online-only for the remainder of the week, following confirmation of Covid-19 cases in the student community. Manchester Metropolitan University, where about 1,700 students have been placed in isolation for a fortnight after 127 tested positive, has moved all foundation and first-year teaching online.  

Around 40 universities are reported to have confirmed coronavirus cases in their campus communities. At Queen’s University Belfast, about 100 students have been told to self-isolate after 30 people tested positive.

Some students have questioned why they were told to come to campuses and pay for accommodation when so much teaching was being done remotely – concerns that have mounted as more tuition has gone online and more lockdowns have been imposed.

Manchester Met has announced a two-week rent rebate plus a care package including a £50 grocery gift card for students placed into self-isolation. The University of Glasgow, where 600 students were told to self-isolate after 172 tested positive, had already put a similar package in place.

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive, said it was “essential” that universities “provide students with as much clarity as possible on what they can expect”.

She said that students “have a right to good-quality higher education – whether that is taught online, in person or a mixture of the two” and that the regulator would be “following up with individual universities and colleges where we have concerns about the arrangements they are making for teaching and academic support” during periods of self-isolation.

“Students make a significant investment in their higher education and have rights as consumers,” Ms Dandridge added. “In considering whether to make partial tuition fee refunds, we would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available.”

On 28 September, a spokesman for the prime minister said that it was expected that all students would be able to return home at Christmas, after health secretary Matt Hancock refused to rule out preventing this.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister in the Westminster government, welcomed the OfS’ statement. “Universities must give as much clarity to students as possible on the tuition they will be receiving, and should ensure that guidance on Covid-19 testing and welfare and emergency resources is readily available,” she said.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (6)

Good. As a lecturer myself I fully support refunds for students.
I wonder if some universities will try to keep face-to-face teaching even when there are confirmed cases within staff and students, just so that they won't have to partially refund students... **eye roll**
A view expressed by someone with no knowledge of how much effort it takes to deliver effective online learning: it takes considerably more effort than trundling up to a lecture theature and talking for an hour. A refund of tuition is inappropriate. Accommodation is another matter. Bringing students onto campus might have been inappropriate and there is an argument for flexibility in how those who initially decided to attend in person are dealt with if they choose to go home and access online teaching from there.
I completely agree with the comment directly above. Great efforts have been made by Academic and Professional Services staff to provide students with an online learning environment which not only keeps them safe, but opens the door to the digital environment and the new tools and methods it offers. This is a global pandemic impacting everybody and a change in tuition style would seem quite trivial when balanced against people dying or losing the jobs they need to support their families. Claiming compensation for the slightest inconvenience seems to a typical knee jerk reaction now, but has any consideration been given to the economic impact this will have on our educational institutions who are already facing uncertain financial futures ?
I am a staff member at one of the universities in West Midlands. In past few weeks I visited campus several times and had a chance to see how COVID-19 rules are obeyed in practice. Unfortunately it was not the picture the government wanted to see. Despite the appropriate signs, no one follows the rules of social distancing, stairs and elevators are overcrowded, groups of a dozen or so students crowd into narrow corridors near classrooms. Both students and staff do not wear face masks, often reacting aggressively when brought to attention. Adhering to social bubbles is pure fiction. Although they have online classes planned, students come to the campus with laptops and in groups participate in these classes, without understanding that lectures are online to limit number of people present on the campus. I fully agree that the level of online teaching is good enough to give up face to face teaching for one semester for the sake of the public. Additionally, I believe that students, although young, are adults and have sufficient ability to cope with distance learning for several months. There is no need to give up courses, request refunds and close universities. All we need is a bit of flexibility and adaptation to the new (temporary) reality. And who, if not higher education institutions, should set an example of innovation and quick finding of effective solutions to difficult problems. Throughout this discussion, we probably forget that the primary goal of universities and higher education is to educate people and equip them with knowledge and skills, and not to provide them with the student experiance understood as rich social life and partying until the morning.
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"Throughout this discussion, we probably forget that the primary goal of universities and higher education is to educate people and equip them with knowledge and skills, and not to provide them with the student experiance understood as rich social life and partying until the morning. " Spot on.

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