Should students be refunded for lost education?

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With theatres currently closed, the best political satire available for UK citizens is the well-known farce called ‘Our Government: Lockdown Part 3’. Whilst Primary and Secondary schools take centre stage, university students have landed the meagre role of understudy.

University students have been neglected and vilified since the beginning of the pandemic. While GCSE and A-level exams have been cancelled due to disruption of online learning, Russell Group Universities have ripped the no detriment policy, from undergraduates’ feet. When schools were re-opened last term, face-to-face teaching for most undergraduate subjects remained faceless.

University students have been neglected and vilified since the beginning of the pandemic

Now, in what is hopefully the third and final act, students have been loosely advised in a small section on the Gov.uk website to “remain where they are wherever possible and start their term online”. It is of no surprise that aggravated students are demanding compensation.

The enriched education experience that gives universities such an appeal has been lost. In Durham’s annual report in 2020, it laid out its overarching aims for the next seven years, including providing students with a “wider experience that is as good as any in the world”. Students paid tuition fees with this expectation in mind.

As Christopher McFarland, an associate solicitor explained to The Guardian: “university students are essentially consumers who have entered a contract with their institutions.” They paid for a service – the standard set by past precedent. Like any other business, if students do not receive the service they were advertised, under contract and consumer law, they must be compensated.

The impact of Covid-19 has essentially reduced university education to the same online experience offered by the Open University. The only difference is traditional university costs £9,250 relative to Open University’s £6,250 annual fee. Without the attraction of a full university experience, what justifies universities charging this additional £3,000? Universities should be more transparent regarding exactly what our £9,000 is being spent on.

The education students are receiving is by no means of the same high standard as previous years

It cannot be denied that the education students are receiving is by no means of the same high standard as previous years. Courses that involve a substantial practical element have been the most adversely hit. Many students, speculating a quick and easy return and in a hurry to get home for Christmas, left their textbooks at Durham. Students trapped at home are left waiting in long queues to access online books that the university is slowly making available.

Furthermore, the majority of students rely on long-term debt loans to fund their university education. Even with these loans, students struggle to make ends meet. New research by Student Beans in 2019 revealed 36% of students have at least one part time job. These jobs tend to be in the service sector, specifically bars and restaurants, all of which are now closed, putting an even greater financial strain on students.

Considering the benefits forgone this academic year, it is understandable that a petition circulating online seeks to reduce university fees from £9,250 to £3,000. This drastic fall in tuition fees would have grave consequences for the universities’ income, which may only exacerbate the situation and worsen teaching standards. Whilst compensation of this size may not be feasible, it is evident that something needs to be done to offset the disadvantaged position students are in.

Whilst compensation of this size may not be feasible, it is evident that something needs to be done

Durham has already taken a step in the right direction, offering a Covid-19 Recovery Fund for students adversely impacted from the pandemic. However, it does not address the anxiety students face taking their exams this year without a no-detriment policy. If financial compensation for tuition fees is not a possibility, universities and the government need to work together to find alternative ways to support students.

Image: UK Prime Minister via Creative Commons

https://www.dunelm.org.uk/donations/palatinate

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