Despite gaining more than 345,000 signatures (245,000 more than is required for parliament to consider the issue for debate), the Government has indicated that an automatic tuition fee refund should not be expected.
At first glance, this position appears to vindicate the enormous efforts made by many universities in a very short space of time to maintain educational continuity remotely. In truth, however, it takes no view on whether or not refunds might be justified. Instead it confirms only that, if they are, the money will not come from Government but from providers and must be pursued by affected students themselves. In legal and regulatory terms, the default position is reaffirmed.
A dispute between student and provider about the standard of educational services reverts to internal procedures, regulators, sector bodies and, if necessary, the courts. This is not welcome news for a sector already facing a substantial deficit but it is the situation in which providers must – for now at least – plan for the future and manage risk.
The Government has yet to provide its updated response to the Petitions Committee regarding a tuition fee refund but, given the circumstances, seems unlikely to step in with public funding. On the assumption that there will not be a Government-backed refund scheme any time soon, higher education providers must remain vigilant and ready for an increase in student service quality related complaints and contemplated claims during 2020/21.
Both the OfS and OIA advocate a sensible approach to the challenges being faced. Being clear about what students should expect next year is a vital aspect of risk management for providers. Equally, students need to be realistic and reasonable about variations in provision caused by pandemic related reasons beyond providers’ control.
Regulatory action is unlikely where due regard to student interests is in evidence. Even so, the principles of consumer protection law continue to apply and providers will be expected to do more now that the initial phase of the pandemic is over if they are to avoid potentially expensive and time consuming litigation.
A version of this article appeared in University Business in August 2020.