Despite months of debate and some progress the situation shows no clear sign of resolution.
On the accommodation side, the response to this predicament has been slow and inconsistent. A growing number of institutions have offered rent reductions to students normally based in provider-owned accommodation but currently forced to study from home. There are also indications that some commercial student accommodation providers will follow suit. But this still leaves a substantial remainder of those who live in the private rented sector (not to mention those who do not fit in to any broad category) in an extremely precarious position.
The situation with tuition fees is also pressing and even more complex. Unlike accommodation, where an individual is usually either living in their house, flat or room or they are not, most students are still receiving some form of tuition. Whilst students will understandably argue that they are not having the experience they expected or want, providers will counterargue that they are receiving higher education and academic continuity. In addition, they can point to increased investment in digital platforms and delivery and welfare services derived from savings generated from campus closure. This moves the debate towards arguments about quality and outcomes which may not be known for some time.
The lack of resolution is not the result of student apathy. Since the effects of the pandemic took hold on education last year, four parliamentary petitions have been submitted regarding university tuition fees, the most recent two of which remain open.
The first, lodged in March, called for reimbursement of 2019-20 fees due to the combined impact of strikes and the pandemic and received over 353000 signatures. The second was lodged in April and focused more narrowly on tuition fees for the disrupted third semester of 2020. Over 110,000 signatures were received in support of the request that the government consider refunding tuition payments for that period. The third was lodged in August and called for a partial refund for the 2019-20 academic year (and for as long as online teaching is implemented), but specifically from universities themselves.
The most recent, lodged in October, calls for a reduction in tuition fees (from £9,250 to £3,000) until online tuition ends, the logic being that these fees should cover more than just the remote academic experience being delivered. It is the government rather than universities which are called on to fund this measure.
Each of these petitions triggered a government response and on 16 November there was a parliamentary debate, but we still seem no closer to a workable way forward.
This, combined with the imposition of the latest round of Coronavirus restrictions on 4 January 2021, explains why less than a week later, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) launched an inquiry into the case for compensation for students. The deadline for submissions was 18 January and while the inquiry's findings are not yet known, statements released by Universities UK and the Russell Group do give an idea of the provider perspective.
Understandably, institutions remain concerned about their own costs but have looked to provide financial assistance to students who are struggling where possible. This encapsulates the difficult balance that must always be struck between prudent governance and student interests. Some have also offered rent discounts and more are likely to follow now that so many students are unable to return to their accommodation due to the third lockdown.
There are also continuing calls for the government to cover the cost of rent rebates, by reducing the amount that students have to repay towards their maintenance loans. At the very least, it is argued, this would be a better approach than relying on provider-led measures which benefit only those who live in provider-owned accommodation.
On the more expensive issue of fees, the situation is even more stark. Providers maintain that they do not have the resources to provide refunds, with any savings arising from campus closures being offset by increased expenditure on hardship funding, investment in digital platforms and delivery and on welfare provision, particularly in respect of mental health. It has also been argued that if there are students unable to achieve their learning objectives this year, this will not be the fault of either institutions or the students themselves. Logically, therefore it is the government that should step in.
So far, such state intervention has been resisted, with the government adhering to the view that tuition fee refunds are essentially a legal matter between autonomous institutions and their student customers. The Office for Students (OfS) has taken a similar position but on the basis that it is not empowered to award refunds and that any intervention on behalf of students must be predicated on inadequate provision.
It is ironic that even if the agreement could be reached on where the money for refunds would come from, there is doubt about the extent to which this would provide direct benefit to the students who most need it. Only those who have paid fees themselves up front would actually receive money back. The vast majority of students (circa. 90%) finance their studies via a student loan and would receive only a balance reduction on their overall repayment sum. This would mainly benefit those who go on to become higher earners and the government itself. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has suggested that the only way that all fee paying students could receive a tangible and immediate benefit would be for the government to pay a fixed amount of compensation to them directly. So far only Northern Ireland has taken that approach, with around 40,000 students in higher and further education set to receive a one-off payment of £500 each by the end of March, this year.
In the absence of any universally accepted argument that students have suffered quantifiable loss, it is not realistic to expect providers already under significant financial pressure to agree to give fees back, provide reductions or offer compensation. This makes the letter sent by the OfS on 14 January to registered providers in England worth noting. Whilst again acknowledging the lack of any legal power to require refunds, the OfS reminded providers of their regulatory obligations and asked them to undertake a consumer protection self-assessment to gauge the extent to which they have met their commitments.
In particular, providers should check:
Significantly, where providers cannot show that these commitments have been and will continue to be properly discharged, they are expected to actively consider refunds or other forms of redress. This might include repeating parts of courses that were not delivered if the teaching and assessment was promised. Where the money for this will come from is not addressed. The OfS is not asking providers to report back on the outcome of reviews but has emphasized that notifications from students or others that cause concern are likely to trigger further enquiries.
With a number of institutions having already confirmed that they will be offering online teaching only for the rest of the academic year, the need to identify a way forward is not going away. The movement already achieved on accommodation costs is positive but may not be enough to prevent national rent strikes. Whether there will be similar mass action in respect of tuition fees that goes beyond parliamentary petitions and debates remains to be seen.