Tuition Fees: The Higher Education Context

University life has changed dramatically over the last 11 months. There has been significant discussion in the media about the particular issues students have faced during this pandemic, which has prompted greater interest in tuition fee compensation or refunds. The debate on tuition fees has been widespread across the Higher Education sector through the last 20 years, and it remains ongoing.

In general, there are three fundamental aspects to a student experience; academic tuition (lectures, seminars, etc.), support services (library, careers, wellbeing, etc.), and the ‘experience’ or social side. It is clear this year that your academic experience has been different, but it has been delivered by the University (although not in the face-to-face manner intended when you enrolled on the course, and with changes to practical experience). It is also true that the support services that run alongside your academic work are available, albeit online and in a different format. However, on the question of whether students are receiving the experience they signed up for, it seems quite clear that the answer is no. This experience is a fantastic part of university, it allows you to pursue different interests, engage with like-minded individuals, make lifelong friends, and gain a whole range of different skills that you can’t get in the (virtual) classroom.

Therefore, an argument can be made that students deserve to receive refunds or compensation on their tuition fees this academic year, due to the fundamental difference in experience compared to what was expected. However, it is evident that the Government should foot the bill if refunds were going to be provided, not individual universities.

Government failings

In my view, the Government has hardly covered itself in glory in its handling of the pandemic in relation to Higher Education and the specific impact on students. When announcing the third UK lockdown back in January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed to mention university students at all, prompting a great deal of confusion about what Term 2 was going to look like. Just prior to Christmas, on 18 December, universities had to respond to a last-minute edict from the Government that universities needed to test all students on return in January (having just scrambled from putting in place logistically challenging plans for a staggered return following another late instruction from Government). Then, in unhelpful flip-flopping of decision making by the Government, only two weeks later universities were told, at the same time as students, that they should scrap this copious planning and now adapt for a fully online provision of education and support whilst adhering to the new Stay at Home guidance. It is still uncertain how long this new lockdown will last, with a review currently set for mid-February.

Petitions calling for tuition fee cuts

The 2020-21 academic year has now been severely impacted by the pandemic, with most teaching occurring under a national lockdown, and both staff and students adapting to working online. Unsurprisingly, there is currently a petition calling for a cut to tuition fees from £9,250 to £3000 for UK Home students, which has reached 568,143 signatures and is set to be considered by Parliament.

Since March 2020, the costs incurred by universities has significantly increased, with extra funding being pumped into hardship funds, investing in online learning, and support initiatives on mental health, among a range of other things. We cannot fault the dedication and effort displayed by both academic and professional services University staff who have continued to adapt as students have throughout this period, whilst facing their own issues such as adapting to home-schooling and virus infections amongst colleagues, family and friends. Having been involved in daily briefings with the University since September, it is clear to me that the University cannot hold the blame for the difference in student experience this year - the external environment has entirely dictated what is and isn’t possible, and it is the Government who need to address this inadequacy in student experience.

The reality of refunds without financial support from the Government

Despite the clear lack of funding into universities to support tuition fee compensation or refunds, the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, has stated that tuition fee refunds are a matter for universities themselves, not the Government. Should the University reduce tuition fees, without financial support from the Government, this reduction in income could mean there may not be a Royal Holloway to return to come September. This level of tuition fee compensation or refunds for all students would only be possible with a significant boost of funding to the sector from the Government.

Student tuition fees mainly cover academic and support staff salaries, alongside the provision of all necessary resources to undertake your education. These costs still exist whether students are experiencing their education online or face to face. If the bill for tuition fee compensation or refunds was footed by the University, this would ultimately result in largescale staff redundancies, alongside the potential closure of courses and departments in universities.

It could be argued that the University would be able to find money from other sources, such as selling off buildings, but it would mean fewer facilities available on campus when students are able to return and therefore less space available for teaching. Realistically, there isn’t much more that can be cut.

Even if the Government were to fund universities to provide tuition fee compensation or refunds, there is a debate in the sector over what this could look like and the unintended consequences. One option would be to reduce interest on student debt for a set number of years to come, or to provide a refund to your current debt. This would firstly only impact UK Home students who receive student loan funding. International students and those who pay upfront using other funding would be left without support. The impact would also only appear after graduation, when you start earning enough money as a UK Home student to pay off your debt. The more money you earn and the faster you earn it has an impact on this repayment, again meaning that any reduction in interest or reduction of student debt would benefit graduates who earn more and contribute to increased inequalities.

As stated previously, if any of this reduction in funding was to impact the University we would see an immediate and short-term impact on your experience. How many less contact hours would you get if there were fewer academic staff available? How much longer would you have to wait to access a busy support service? Unfortunately, this would be the reality if universities were asked to front these costs.

What are the potential solutions?

One potential option which would have an immediate and tangible benefit to students would be to enhance in-year support and funding, such as additional funding from the Government to provide supplementary teaching and extra support services. Students would be able to feel a money in their pocket benefit, and this would positively impact the current experience. Immediate support in the form of additional funding and the reintroduction of maintenance grants would see the biggest positive impact on students in the near future.

Tuition fee compensation or refunds do make sense on the face of it. However, there are a huge array of nuances and complexities that feed into this debate. For universities to offer any compensation or refund, they would require an immediate bailout from the Government, something the Government appear unwilling to provide. Additionally, this form of benefit would be felt by the best paid of future graduates, and fails to alleviate any of the immediate issues with the experience of the academic year 2020-21.

We have written letters outlining these concerns to both our local MP, Dr Ben Spencer, and the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan. You can read more about what we're doing to support you on tuition fees here, and we have provided a template letter for you to send to your local MP.

We're Here For You

Throughout the pandemic, your sabbatical officers have been working behind the scenes to lobby for student rights. We have launched a new area of our website - We're Here For You - which details the work we’re doing to help you. We’ll also use this space to update you on the progress on topics such as this. Keep an eye out for our weekly email and our social media for more information.