Should students be refunded for online-only courses – and who should pay?

Some students paying more than £9,000 per year for tuition believe they are being short-changed, but neither government nor universities seems eager to take responsibility for reimbursing them

Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire/PA Images

The Department for Education is at odds with universities over who should be responsible for refunding unhappy students paying full fees for online-only tuition.

Many institutions have been forced to move all their learning online following confirmed cases of coronavirus on campus, despite promises of “blended learning” and millions spent on making classrooms Covid-safe.

This move to digital learning has led to many students calling for a reduction to their £9,250-a-year fees, citing reduced quality of learning and the increased costs associated with online classes.

“We are owed a refund because the product is not up to scratch. Clearly, virtual teaching is not up to much otherwise surely it would have been instituted years ago,” said Samuel Hall, a third-year history and politics student at Aberystwyth University. “Refunds would help poorer students with the tech support that’s needed. I’m financially fine but if, worst case scenario, my phone and laptop gave up in the same week, I would effectively be excluded from my learning.”

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A government spokesperson insisted that complaints should be taken up with providers first, with any unresolved disputes going to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) for higher education.

But the National Union for Students (NUS) and the University and Colleges Union (UCU) claim the government needs to step in, as cash-strapped universities cannot afford to lose any more fee income.

The lack of clarity comes as thousands of students across the UK are confined to their accommodation as 32 universities report coronavirus cases on campus.

Around 1,700 Manchester Metropolitan University students have been told they cannot leave their halls even if they have no symptoms, while a further 1,200 have been told to self-isolate at Glasgow University.

The Department for Education said universities are “autonomous” and have an “established process in place for students with concerns about their education”, with any unresolved concerns taken up with the OIA.

Over 100 complaints related to coronavirus have been received by the OIA so far, the body claimed, but it warned that many of these had been sent “prematurely” as the complainant had not completed an internal complaints process.

But Labour MP Rachael Maskell, whose constituency houses two leading universities, says the government should take responsibility for the reimbursement of students.

“[York’s universities] need government backing, as core funding for universities is clearly challenged already,” she said. “I believe this latest situation demonstrates how the funding structure is broken and why Labour’s manifesto commitment to scrap tuition fees would have resulted in this situation not arising. The government therefore must step in and support universities.”

NUS president Larissa Kennedy, meanwhile, agreed that universities may struggle to issue refunds without backing from the government.

She said: “The year ahead is only going to bring more upheaval in higher education and flexibility is now crucial; students should be able to leave rental contracts at their university accommodation and receive rent rebates so that they can remain at home if they wish to. If their quality of learning is severely impacted then we also need to see tuition fees reimbursed.”

She added: “Student finances have taken a real hit over the past few months and the government must step in so that they are not further penalised by its disastrous mishandling of the pandemic.”

MPs on parliament’s petitions committee argued against blanket fee refunds earlier this year, but did back calls for the government to support universities to reimburse students in some cases.

Chair of the committee, Labour MP Catherine McKinnell, said: “Despite the hard work of lecturers and support staff, some universities have been unable to provide courses in a way that students feel is good value for money.

“Therefore, while we do not consider that a blanket refund for all students is necessarily required, we believe that the government has a role in ensuring any student whose university experience has fallen short is compensated.”


Sam Trendall

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