Student pressure for refunds in England becoming ‘unstoppable’

V-cs urge government to compensate universities over pandemic rent waivers, with fee refunds also expected to become ‘political football’

January 8, 2021
Water breaking frozen surface

Students’ calls for refunds on accommodation and tuition fees amid pandemic-driven disruption are expected to swiftly grow into a huge issue for English universities and the government, with some vice-chancellors urging ministers to compensate institutions for rent waivers.

With the latest lockdown leaving a return to face-to-face teaching unlikely for most students this term, universities seeking compensation for significant amounts of income lost to student refunds could create a higher education funding problem for the government.

One senior sector figure predicted that student calls for refunds will “mount to unstoppable levels” and suggested that the Department for Education was modelling options for compensation through the loans system with the intent of making the case for government support – most likely on the accommodation front rather than tuition fees.

Meanwhile, Sir Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University’s vice-chancellor, said that the issue of accommodation refunds probably had “more legs” than the fees one, but predicted that “both will become a political football”.

Given that fees include a sizeable element of public subsidy and support vital courses including those for nurses and doctors, as well as securing “an HE infrastructure”, the refunds issue “will get batted around between government and the sector, but government knows that fee refunds will lead to cuts to courses and job losses”, Sir Chris added.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said at a press conference on 5 January that the government “will be looking very carefully at what is happening to students” with “their courses being postponed – and the absence of tuition that they would expect”, and was hoping that online learning would “allow them to continue with their degree courses”.

“But clearly there are going to be issues to do with the cost of their accommodation which we will have to look at as a government and see what arrangements the universities are making to deal with the reasonable concerns of many, many students,” he added.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of University of Sunderland , said that on accommodation his institution has “already said that students who want to be released from their contracts can do so without any penalty”.

He added that for some universities – “although not Sunderland” – “the financial consequences could be very significant if they have a high percentage of ‘home’ students who are now unable to return to their accommodation for many weeks – but are still planning to do so – and demand refunds. I think that, in such circumstances, the government has to look sympathetically at providing additional financial support for universities.”

David Green, the University of Worcester’s vice-chancellor, said that his institution has “changed the terms and conditions of the [accommodation] contract to give students the right to cancel their contract with us if teaching went online for more than a short period of time”, and “will certainly support students receiving a refund for costs for accommodation that they can’t use because of government decisions” on lockdown.

The Treasury “should certainly supply cash to the Department for Education to compensate universities that have waived rents for students”, he added.

Professor Green continued: “I certainly think that a comprehensive [government] policy and statement is badly needed on this. It is highly likely that the new ‘lockdown’ will last until Easter – so this is a major matter.”

On tuition fees, Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, said that “where students are not receiving adequate education during Covid they absolutely have the right to compensatory actions which could include a refund [on fees], or the ability to resit/redo at no additional cost. Students in this position should use their own institution’s complaints procedures and seek support from their students’ union on this.”

On the picture across the sector, Sir David argued that given access to education and other aspects of the student experience was continuing, the case for fee refunds “remains weak unless a student could demonstrate significant academic detriment on the part of a university and/or was denied access, in any way, to other services and support”.

Students seeking a fee refund would have two potential routes: complaints to their university and ultimately to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, or to the Competition and Markets Authority.

Smita Jamdar, head of education at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, said that the CMA had previously expressed a view that suppliers are not permitted to deliver “something completely different” to what was originally promised in a contract even in changed circumstances beyond their control, but that “applying that principle to universities” and the difference between online and face-to-face teaching “is really not easy”.

Ms Jamdar continued that “the longer [the disruption] goes on and the more extensive the disruption…the dial shifts from the university to the student, but pretty slowly, and not necessarily in a uniform way across all institutions, all courses and all students”.

She added: “There does seem to be a growing clamour for a centralised solution to this in the form of government fee loan remission and rent subsidies, which might end up being a far more equitable solution than relying on individual consumer rights.”

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