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Treating students as consumers was always going to be a double-edged sword

Signs on a window at Manchester Metropolitan University's Birley campus where hundreds of students were asked to self-isolate in September 2020 | PA Images

Tom Hunter, Political Consultant | Dods Monitoring

5 min read

Young people have had a raw deal during the pandemic, and the latest ‘rent strike’ is just one of the many ways in which Britain’s university students are demanding better value for money

It’s estimated that around 15,000 students from over 45 institutions across the UK have pledged to withhold rent during the latest coronavirus lockdown – the largest UK rent strike in a generation. Although the Labour Party are yet to take an official position, their cause isn’t without support. Not only do the majority of the public agree they shouldn’t have to fork out, but some Conservative MPs have departed from government messaging to publicly call for fee and rent reductions.

This hasn’t been a typical year for the higher education sector. The pandemic brought a wave of uncertainty to providers over their finances, to applicants over their places, and to undergraduates and postgraduates alike over their academic futures.

The frustrations of many students centre around quality of tuition, rent and leniency in marking. Some feel they were sold false promises, with universities talking of “blended learning” over the summer, before returning to campus in the autumn only to find circumstance had forced much of their tuition online. In the current lockdown, nearly every course outside of healthcare is being exclusively taught online.

The message from the DfE on the quality of online teaching in recent weeks has been relatively clear – if higher education institutions are unable to provide a “quality” educational experience throughout the pandemic, then they should refund fees.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s stance was backed by new guidance from the Office for Students, which told providers to check again to make sure students were receiving what was promised to them. Universities minister Michelle Donelan also published a “STUDENT MESSAGE” Twitter thread, which many in the sector didn’t take kindly to.

However, there are some concerns that high-profile supporters of fee refunds are inadvertently devaluing degrees which were always offered online through institutions such as the Open University, and it is unclear what shape a refund of a loan that most would never fully repay anyway would take.

Some institutions have even introduced ‘no detriment’ or ‘safety net’ policies, whereby the current disruption to education is taken into account when awarding students their final grades. How this is factored in can differ slightly between institutions and the majority of providers haven’t yet implemented them. The National Union of Students (NUS) have campaigned on this throughout the pandemic, but some, such as the Russell Group, have ruled out introducing these policies this year, saying they aren’t necessary.

The DfE also not been forthcoming with guidance on issues of rent repayments, after students were told not to return to university at the start of the most recent national lockdown. Although most universities did refund student accommodation rent in the initial lockdown last March, many students have now found themselves being asked to pay for accommodation they’re not allowed to live in. While some university and private accommodation providers have agreed since to rent refunds, either in part or in full, the impact of this on already stretched university finances varies greatly across the country.

Although student numbers have held up better than expected, universities still face several risks to their finances and radical fee refunds would lose some institutions around a quarter of their income at a time when every penny counts. As with other sectors, many across higher education have suggested that a government bailout could eventually be the only option.

Some funding has already been received – a £2.6bn in advance in tuition fee payments in April 2020 and the £280m Sustaining University Research Expertise (SURE) package in June – but these have been criticised for not going far enough for a sector overwhelmingly reliant on international students.

Of course, the debate around “quality of tuition” and how higher education in England is funded is not a new one. When a regulatory body was introduced alongside the higher fee cap in 2012/13, the sector was further marketised, effectively turning students into consumers. So who should pay when customers (i.e. students) feel they are no longer getting value for money? It would be easy to conclude that it should be down to HE providers themselves. But when we consider that many of the restrictions causing these issues come from government-mandated measures, and ultimately from a global pandemic, where to lay the blame becomes less clear.

And what is a customer to do once they’ve received a refund, but are still left with what they believe to be a faulty product? Money in the pockets of students might satisfy their initial gripes, but they still might not get what they set out to achieve when they completed their UCAS application.

Tom Hunter is Dods political consultant, specialising in education and skills

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