Pandemic’s rough deal for uni students

Government faces growing calls for compensation

There is no denying that university students, like many other groups and individuals, have had a rough deal during the coronavirus crisis and continue to do so as this academic year approaches its final third. When the Covid situation worsened last November and numerous halls of residence went into lockdown, we looked at the effect this was having on student morale and education. Since then, conditions and circumstances have fluctuated but the reality is that many, probably the majority of students, have spent most of their learning hours at home, being taught remotely via their laptops. And though some campuses are now reopened, many universities are continuing with online teaching or combining online and in-person learning as a further Covid safety measure.

While teaching staff have no doubt done their best to respond to these new and challenging times, in recent surveys even the majority of university educators themselves have agreed that the shift to online teaching has had an adverse effect on students’ learning. Is this reasonable, or fair? Should students receive financial compensation with a refund of at least part of their annual £9,250 tuition fee?

Hardship funds and partial rent rebates have helped some, but many – and not just the students – are calling for more. Economists and university administrators have suggested that at the very least interest should be scrapped on student loans for the duration of the pandemic. But that would be no immediate help, and with the universities maintaining that they cannot afford refunds, the chance of actual compensation looks slim for struggling students. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson recently instructed the Office for Students, the regulatory body for higher education, to “take swift action when it is clear that quality and academic standards have dropped.” But there was no mention of a refund of fees. They have been frozen at £9,250 for four years, a real terms cut for universities as inflation increases, so administrators will be listening closely when the Government makes the announcement on future fees due this autumn.

Meanwhile, the Government has rejected a NUS petition with half-a-million signatures calling for a reduction in fees to £3,000. But students throughout the UK are not giving up. Many are seeking and receiving expert advice on how to claim and gain the refund they believe they richly and rightly deserve.

What our surveys show

With even academic staff admitting that the quality of university teaching has suffered during the pandemic, it’s easy to see why a significant majority of 62% answered “Yes” to our first question on this. Just 15% said “No” and a relatively high number, 23%, said they “Don’t know”. We excluded those “don’t knows” from our second question, which asked if student fees should be reduced and students compensated for past fees because of the move to online teaching.

We posed the same question in our survey last November, and this time the numbers answering “Yes” shot up from 59% to an overwhelming majority of 70%. Those answering “No” fell from 16% in November to 12% in March, whilst the “Don’t knows” also dropped, from 25% in November to 18% in March.

As for whether students should pay for unused accommodation during the pandemic, there is clearly a recognition of unfairness and a feeling of sympathy for the hard-pressed students. A huge majority of 87% answered with a resounding “They should not pay”, while only 4% said “They should pay” and 9% said they “Don’t know”.

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