Governments have ‘responsibility’ to help reimburse students

An unheeded call for tuition fee refunds in Hong Kong echoes concerns around the world

March 30, 2020
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Students’ unions at Hong Kong’s eight public universities have requested tuition fee refunds to compensate students for months of suspended in-person classes, activities and exams. So far, universities have not offered significant concessions, claiming that online teaching is an adequate substitute given exceptional circumstances.

The situation is becoming pressing in Hong Kong, where face-to-face instruction has been cancelled on and off since November, longer than anywhere else in the world, having been disrupted first by political protests and then by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Calls for tuition fee reimbursements are also growing in Western countries, particularly at publicly funded institutions. A petition on the UK Parliament website demanding refunds for an entire year’s tuition costs had 270,000 signatures as of 27 March.

Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, told Times Higher Education that “national governments and local authorities should take major responsibilities for dealing with the financial problems caused by the worldwide spread of coronavirus” and should help universities meet students’ demands on issues such as refunds.

Surveys in Hong Kong have shown that an overwhelming proportion of students want at least partial reimbursements.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong Students’ Union published a report in February that found that 98 per cent of respondents believed there should be a refund of this term’s fees; of those, 80 per cent felt that a partial refund was fair. Meanwhile, 93 per cent thought that residential colleges should refund hostel fees because 85 per cent of students did not stay on campus during class suspensions.

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) Students’ Union, which published a similar survey on 5 March, said “a huge number of students demanded a refund of tuition fees”. It recommended a partial refund “in light of the unavailability of facilities and inadequate teaching and learning experience for this semester”.

Michael Ng, president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Students’ Union, told THE that its survey of students also demonstrated strong support for fee refunds.

“Many people have seen their families affected” by the economic downturn, he said. “Tuition is a big burden in particular for non-local students, who pay full fees but may have a harder time logging in to live online classes due to time differences.” Some international students may also be “stuck” in Hong Kong because of travel restrictions and finding themselves having to pay for private accommodation.

Mr Ng added that “the learning outcomes from online teaching have not been efficient”, which has been a common complaint in various student petitions and polls.

Ip Kin-yuen, a Hong Kong lawmaker representing the education sector, told THE that “in this situation, both universities and students need to look for solutions, for possibilities. The biggest problem is the financial burden on students and their families.”

One alternative to institutions refunding fees could be for them to offer discounted tuition for upcoming terms. “We want students to come back to school and not be deterred by tuition fees,” he said.

HKU would not reimburse tuition fees paid for the current academic year, aside from some concessions for late-dropped credits, a spokeswoman confirmed to THE. “We have made all necessary arrangements to ensure that teaching and learning for students continue smoothly during the period,” she said, adding that grants and loans were available for those in need.

A spokeswoman at Hong Kong Baptist University also confirmed there would be no refunds, given that remote learning was being provided and laboratory or other work could be made up in the summer. “With all forms of instruction combined, the number of contact hours should be similar to that of a regular semester,” she said. “Since the arrangements only involve adjusting the mode of teaching and learning, no refund of the tuition fee will be offered.”

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