Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir David. I want to thank Miriam Helmers, Sophie Quinn, Wiktoria Seroczynska, Maya Ostrowska and Georgia Henderson for creating the petitions, which have more than 980,000 signatures, collectively—a very significant number. In the order of the names I have given, the petitions are to “Require universities to reimburse students’ tuition fees during strike action”, to “Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19”, to “Refund university students for 3rd Semester Tuition 2020”, to “Require universities to partially refund tuition fees for 20/21 due to Covid-19” and to “Lower university tuition fees for students until online teaching ends”. Each petition differs slightly from the others, but a common thread runs through them, and that is the fact that hundreds of thousands of students are aggrieved because they have not received adequate value for money from the universities. I want to make it clear that, as the Committee has heard in evidence, university staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide teaching during the pandemic. To many petitioners, the fault lies at the door of the universities.
For the last 30 years, school leavers have been told repeatedly by Government and the media that a university degree is the best, if not the only, option to take them towards a fulfilling career. For many, gaining a place at university is the culmination of a lifelong dream. However, it comes at a cost. English universities can charge up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees. So if, for example, someone did a three-year course at £9,250 a year and got £6,378 a year for their maintenance loan they would graduate with £46,884 of debt, and that is before interest is added. By any stretch of the imagination that is a massive amount of money. We would think that if someone is investing that type of money, they deserve an adequate return on the investment, and that if they do not get it, they should be properly compensated. Students simply want value for money.
I want to explain two of the ways in which many students feel they did not receive value for money, because of the pandemic and strikes. The Petitions Committee conducted a survey of people who had signed relevant petitions and received more than 25,000 responses from current students. Most students who responded told the Committee that teaching hours at the universities had fallen because of the pandemic, and they were either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the quality of the education they were receiving. A student enrolled on a clinical course expressed disappointment at the quality of the teaching. Clinical practice did not take place, and they described the fear that this raised:
“It isn’t a case of will the medics, dentists and vets of this year come out as less trained individuals but a question of how much poorer will their practice be.”
The drop in teaching hours affects arts students as well. Seminars and debates are difficult to translate into online teaching, especially when there are international students, who are often in different time zones because of the pandemic. That has meant for some that the interactivity of discussion, which is vital to subjects such as history or English literature, is lost. For those who are affected by strike action as well, teaching from January 2020, through to the summer, was minimal.
In a written submission, the National Union of Students expressed a concern:
“A whole cohort of students would lose faith in the UK’s education system if they are not financially reimbursed for missed teaching.”
Wiktoria Seroczynska, the creator of the petition to refund student tuition fees for the third semester of 2020, has told me that among those she has spoken to across different universities,
“comparing the quality of education we were promised to what we have right now, is shocking.”
She has explained that students feel very let down and have found it difficult to engage with their learning in the same way. Reduced contact hours, a struggle to engage students in online learning, a lack of mental health support and a lack of connectivity with tutors have all contributed to a far reduced experience. The pandemic has meant that universities have been forced to adapt the way in which they provide teaching, but the Government’s delay in giving clearer guidance has often meant rushed decisions. Georgia Henderson, who created the petition to lower tuition fees until online teaching ends, has echoed this, saying that there has been a lack of clarity from the Government regarding plans of action for students.
Students were encouraged to return with the promise of a mix of in-person and online courses, but many found themselves being taught wholly online. This has not only cost them rent, but left many isolated in a new place they have only just moved to, without any form of support system. As we have recently seen in Manchester, with a rent strike and the occupation of Owens Park by students, it is clear that many feel let down. One student, Izzy Smitheman, told the BBC:
“They brought us here for profit rather than our safety”.
Another has said that students feel they were “tricked” back into university in September. Students feel greatly mistreated by the Government: blamed for the rise in covid cases, locked in accommodation in new cities with no support network, and not receiving the teaching they have paid for. The Government’s lack of engagement with these issues is severely damaging.
The lack of clarity, and the difference between what students were led to believe and the reality of their teaching, have hugely affected students’ mental health. Since the beginning of the academic year, a student has died every week from suicide. Let me repeat that horrendous statistic: since September, every week, a student has taken their own life. Every week, parents have been told that their child died alone at their university; every week, friends and families grieve for a life cut short; and still the Government have not addressed these students’ issues. Their petitions voice a “desperate cry for help”, as Georgia Henderson says. The Government have repeatedly failed to plan for the safe learning of students at universities, leaving those universities to navigate a way to deliver high-quality teaching at short notice, often with devastating effects on the mental health of students. The Government need to realise that, without proper planning, it is the student—the young person—who suffers.
Petition 300528 would
“Require universities to reimburse students' tuition fees during strike action”.
The petition argues that if universities were forced to issue students with refunds for missed teaching due to strike action, that might strengthen the case of striking teaching staff. Ultimately, universities should take their teaching staff’s complaints seriously and negotiate with them in good faith. However, far too often, striking staff feel that this is not the approach being taken. In February, during strike action at universities across the country, University and College Union chairperson Jo Grady said:
“We are on the same side in this dispute and we hope students will put pressure on their vice-chancellors”
to send their representatives back to the negotiating table
“with a clear mandate to work seriously to try and resolve the disputes”.
The universities Minister has said that this situation is neither of the universities’ making, nor the Government’s. However, the Government have a duty of care. Just as the most vulnerable are rightly going to receive funding through the winter grant scheme this year, so too should the Government look after their students. The Government have stepped in to provide financial aid for other essential sectors of our society that have experienced financial difficulty due to the pandemic, but have not given any aid to higher education. Petition creator Georgia Henderson has told me that students understand that it is up to universities to lower tuition fees. However,
“as the government was responsible for increasing the cap on said tuition fees, I see it only fair for the government to lower these in the light of Covid.”
Universities are vital to our economy and vital for our country to continue to thrive. We pride ourselves on our educational institutions and on the contributions that our universities make and have made to the world. Surely we ought to make sure that their integrity is maintained, that students feel they are being treated fairly, and that higher education in England is not only rigorous but good value for money.
Currently, if a student wishes to seek reimbursement from the university, they have the right to take up an individual complaint. Many students do not know how the system works, and even if they did, placing the responsibility on the individual is not efficient, reasonable or fair. Many have argued that the current processes set up to deal with complaints are inadequate for the volume of complaints expected as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator received 2,371 complaints in 2019. If even 1% of students in higher education were to complain to their institution and have that passed on to the OIA, that would represent a roughly tenfold increase in the number of complaints it had to deal with. Even if the OIA’s capacity were increased, the exact circumstances in which students should expect to receive a refund or be able to repeat part of their course are not clear, which would mean a vast number of lengthy, time-consuming and confusing cases. If the financial burden of those refunds falls entirely on the universities, it will cripple them and inevitably lead to staff redundancies.
The Petitions Committee produced a report on the impact of coronavirus on university students. One of its recommendations was that the Government put in place a new process to consider complaints that would cover complaints arising from covid-19 and other out-of-the-ordinary events that affect the courses of large numbers of students, including large-scale strikes. That would at least mean that students who believe themselves to be entitled to a refund would have a clear method of pursuing it.
Universities already face a fall in revenue. If they are to maintain their high-quality staff and facilities, they will not be able to reimburse all students. Therefore, conversations need to be had to ascertain the level of refund that students could reasonably demand based on the teaching they received, how feasible it is for universities to do that and how much the Government should give to support universities and students.
The petitions have made it clear that students feel “forgotten about” and
“cruelly mistreated by the government”,
as Georgia Henderson wrote to me. If, as the Government say, they believe that students should be at the heart of higher education, they need to act on their concerts. If they do not, they run the risk of tarnishing this country’s long-held reputation for excellence in academic institutions.