Renewed calls for compensation as university year draws to an end
University students around the UK have reached the end of the academic year, a strange and unsettling time, especially for those starting out in higher education. Meeting and working with a different set of people, adapting to a changed, more intense way of learning, forging new friendships, moving into student accommodation which was for many their first time away from the security of family life. Any or all of these can be difficult, but then to be told after a few weeks they must go home to be taught entirely remotely must have been, at the very least, bewildering.
Finally they returned to the university campus for the concluding weeks of the academic year, some saying it was like starting all over again. But they stuck at it, or most did, even those in what Education Secretary Gavin Williamson described as “dead-end” courses that leave them with “nothing but debt”. Disheartening and discouraging words, particularly for those studying in the arts and humanities sectors, as Williamson clearly favours the sciences. According to a government consultation beginning this month, ministers aim to switch more students to science, technology, healthcare and technical courses, which will be topped up with extra funding. Critics, though, fear for the future of the arts and humanities in higher education, with some universities, including London South Bank, Aston and Hull, already set to cut existing courses or even close entire departments.
The new proposals may see tuition fees fall from £9,250 to a maximum of £7,500, with the government acknowledging that most degrees are never repaid in full, as graduates frequently do not earn enough to meet the £27,295 a year repayments threshold. An earlier petition placed on the parliamentary website called for fees to be slashed to £3,000 and received more than 200,000 signatures. And the National Union of Students demanded that universities stop charging fees and offer students rebates while they were unable to use their accommodation. Now, amid continuing claims that universities themselves did not do enough to stay open and keep online tuition to a minimum, some have been ordered by The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) to pay compensation to a number of individuals for the effects of coronavirus on their courses. Complaints have included fears over accommodation, disruption to learning and a lack of vital practical experience. There may be more to come.
What our surveys show
In a survey in March we asked whether respondents thought the quality of teaching at UK universities and higher education institutions had suffered as a result of it moving online during the pandemic. At that time 62% of those surveyed answered “Yes” and in our latest survey the figure has increased to 70%. In March 15% said “No” and this time around the figure has risen marginally to 16%. The biggest change comes in the “don’t know” replies with a fall from 23% to 14%. Our second question asked if student fees should be reduced and students compensated because of the move to online teaching. In March a significant 70% answered “Yes” and again there has been an increase to 77%. The “No” replies have remained consistent at 12%, meaning once more that the major shift has been in the “don’t know” answers, these having fallen from 18% to 11%. Finally, for this survey we asked whether universities have done enough to restart face-to-face teaching, in line with schools? Only 30% believed they had, while a small majority, 52%, thought they could have done more, and 18% said they don’t know.