NUS mass action demands Covid-19 student debt relief

At same time, experts warn that government proposals to ensure A-level pupils get more classroom time by delaying exams will cause widespread disruption to university admissions

June 24, 2020
A bag of money being pulled away
Source: iStock/t_kimura

The UK’s National Union of Students has launched a mass action aimed at getting debt relief for students whose education has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, while experts have warned against government proposals to push back A-level exams in 2021 for school-leavers who have been affected.

The NUS said that it wanted students who have faced the most disruption to their education to come forward in a mass student “complaint chain” action. The union said it would “use their experiences” to demand compensation and debt relief to make up for the disrupted studies.

According to NUS estimates, about 20 per cent of students have been unable to access any of their learning during the Covid-19 lockdown, and 33 per cent do not believe that their education in the period has been “high quality”. This includes 21 per cent of disabled students who have not been able to receive reasonable adjustments remotely, the union said.

The UK government should “offer affected students debt relief, financial compensation, or the ability to redo a proportion of their studies at no additional cost”, the NUS said.

As institutions are facing significant financial challenges resulting from the pandemic, they would struggle to foot the bill without government support, the NUS said. “This is an unprecedented problem at an unprecedented scale, and a national sector-wide solution is needed to ensure that students are treated fairly and that institutions have the support they need to deal with the situation at hand,” the union said.

Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS vice-president (higher education), said “the scale of the disruption has been so vast that we need a national sector-wide response from government for this, including funding from Westminster. Even if students complain to their individual institutions, how will universities afford it when the UK government hasn’t announced a single penny of additional funding to support them?

“Our plea to the UK government is clear: you must offer tangible help to students who can’t access their education right now.”

A Department for Education spokesman said the government “expects universities to continue to deliver a high-quality academic experience, and we know many institutions have provided this to ensure that courses are fit for purpose and to help students achieve their academic goals”.

“Universities are autonomous, and there is an established process in place for students with concerns about their education. Students should first raise their concerns with their provider, and any unresolved complaints at providers in England and Wales should go to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator, which has published guidance on this issue,” the spokesman said.

At the same time, the government faced a warning from experts who said that proposals to push back A-level exams could “create more problems than it would solve”.

On 22 June,Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said the government planned to “consult Ofqual on how we can move exams back” to allow students more time in the classroom to complete the curriculum after the disruption caused by the lockdown.

Mary Curnock Cook, the former chief executive of Ucas, said such a system change “risks sending unintended consequences reverberating through schools, colleges and universities”.

“On the face it looks easy, but any change to academic timetables is a big deal to all stakeholders, including Ucas,” she said.

Mr Williamson’s announcement was in response to a question from Alec Shelbrooke, the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, who asked the government whether it was considering his proposal to postpone the 2021 exams season from May to July.

However, Ms Curnock Cook said postponing exams by even one month would cause disruption to university admissions because it would push results back to September or later, when universities normally begin their term time. It would also mean the clearing process would run well into the start of the new academic year, she said.

As with every change, she continued, she worried about what would happen to disadvantaged students. “If everything is hurried and compressed, students get less time to get advice,” she said.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, agreed. “Any changes have to be judged in the round. It has to be clearly in the interests of students, and that’s not necessarily a guarantee if university admissions systems or exam boards can’t cope,” he said.

A Universities UK spokesman said “universities will always do all they can to support students to achieve their learning outcomes and progress. Any decisions about changes to exams or assessments will be relayed when required to staff and students as soon as possible. Universities look forward to engaging with Ofqual and the government to ensure that no student is disadvantaged as a result of educational disruption caused by Covid-19.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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