Tuition Fees

Bell Ribeiro-Addy Excerpts
Monday 16th November 2020

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey (Tatton) (Con)
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16 Nov 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for bringing this important matter to the House. I know that he is also the joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on customer service, so he must be appalled by the customer service that students are receiving.

I have been following the matter for almost a year, from the strike action to the first covid-19 lockdown, through the exam situation, the return to university and lockdown again. I have spoken to and supported students on the way, and I have learned a lot about what they are going through.

In fact, I made a Blue Collar Conversations podcast on the issue on 23 May called “Has COVID19 Injected a Degree of Uncertainty into University Education?”. I spoke to a list of students, including Emily Bethell, who spoke on behalf of many and relayed some of the things that had happened. In March, the week before lockdown, she was told that if we went into lockdown, the university could cope—that it could move online, it had a good online portal, they could carry on working and it would be relatively normal. However, that was not the case and it did not work out like that.

Despite those institutions being the height of academia, students watched revision lectures that turned out to be a rehash of those from previous years. As for contact, there used to be one-to-one contact—about 120 hours per term—but in the summer term that went down to just four hours, and there was no reduction in the fees. She did not make a complaint, because she thought that her university was measured on good results, and, “We had been told that our exams would be marked compassionately, which meant that we could all get good results”. Therefore, there was no recourse, no complaint and she would not get a refund. She said that this was not her being cynical; she said that this is what they are all talking about, as students together.

She said, “You know, I don’t feel like a student. This is something I have wanted to do all my life. I have aimed to get to university. I feel more like a commodity, and I don’t feel that others think that my education is paramount. It is to me; that is why I am paying £9,000 to attend university.” She also said, “You know what? What I am receiving now is not what I contracted for. It’s not what I signed up to do. I feel more like a tin of baked beans, just packed high and sold off—only in this instance, they are not being sold off cheap. They are being sold off at a very dear price.” She added, “If I had purchased a car with this many problems, I’d have wanted it to have been fixed or I’d have wanted my money back”.

Then there is Bronwen Kershaw. Again, I spoke to her in March, on the 19th. She was in the library and the only thing that she saw was a little notice there saying that it would be closed from the following day. Bronwen studies history and most of her books are actually in hard physical form. With the library being closed the following day, before the exams that were coming up in a couple of months’ time, she had to quickly get as many physical books as she could. There were not that many there, and all the other students were doing the same thing.

Bronwen had hoped that this process would perhaps set about the modernisation of university—surely the books should be online on JSTOR, or on some sort of online library catalogue. The universities need to modernise. She said what she had was “poor service” from March onwards. She received group emails; nothing was personalised. There was no interaction. She said that it was as if strike action had carried on in that university. One of her lecturers had poor internet connection at home, which meant she did not get any online tutorials because it was not possible. So, she felt abandoned and let down.

She then looked into how she would go about getting a refund, but it is not that easy. Then, 20 weeks ago, via the online platform Student Problems, I was interviewed about how a student gets a refund. Obviously, the contract is between the student and the university, so the student has to make a complaint against the university. Then, they have to exhaust the internal process, and only then can they go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Their complaint will be balanced against what the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education says should be the standard of education expected. However, some students did not go along that path. I spoke to the host of the Student Problems website, Sam Rostron, and he asked, “Why don’t you think students are following this route? What are their concerns?” I said that many of them had said to me that they feared reprisals. They were only in their first or second year and they thought they might not get the grade that they should, so they felt that they did not want to upset the apple cart and would not pursue that route. They also said that, in a way, covid was a brand new situation, so they wanted to forgive the university in a way—perhaps it was trying its very best. This was also something that they had wanted to do all their life, so lots of students did not pursue any sort of refund.

Since then we have had the summer recess, and months and months have passed. The students went back to university, having been told they could return. The universities welcomed them and the Government said, “You can go back”. They thought that meant the universities would be up to speed, would be covid-compliant and would be able to teach online. However, that has not proved to be the case.

I am speaking now on behalf of parents from my constituency. Joe Egan from Wilmslow’s son was only at Newcastle University for 48 hours before he was told that all his tutorials and lectures would be online. If he had known that beforehand, he would have taken an Open University degree. Shirley Smith from Alderley Edge has a son who is a fresher at the University of Northampton. She told me that he has only been offered online teaching. She also raised concerns about the evacuation-style plan to get students home for Christmas. Bethan Weston from Wilmslow raised concerns about the mixed standard of lectures, among other issues. Her daughter is in accommodation with 23 others. She has not been able to socialise. She is living in a house, but because there are no communal areas, they are all sitting in the halls and on stairways to speak to one another. She is concerned about the debt, the lockdown and the students’ mental health issues. She said it compares to a prison camp. It is unacceptable. How were young students allowed to go back to university when universities did not have the capability to look after their students? Some of them have literally been locked up in student accommodation.

Another example comes from the Birley campus at Manchester Metropolitan University, posted on the Student Problems website. Some 1,700 students were told to self-isolate for 14 days. How was that news broken to them? They went to leave the campus and were told by security guards that they had to go back inside. There were no emails for a couple of hours. They did not know what was going on. They got no refund for their rent. They all said it was more like Her Majesty’s prison. They were then labelled as super-spreaders and looked down on by the general public. They said that was unfair. They had been told that they could go to university. What else were they to do?

On 11 November, the SAFER—Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response—report came out. It said that our universities have prioritised profit over student welfare, and that the cost of an online honours degree at the Open University would be over £9,000 cheaper at the end of three years. It said there is a lack of adequate support in the halls, of regular testing and even of food. We are talking about vulnerable 18 and 19-year-olds for whom this may be the first time they have moved away from home, and this is how they are being treated.

My question to the Minister come from students in my constituency, parents and SAFER. The university has claimed tuition fees are a Government issue; the Government are saying they are a university issue; people are asking the Government to clarify who is responsible. If both university and Government are responsible, how and when will the issue be resolved? If it is a university issue, what pressure can Government bring to bear on the universities to get this sorted? What meetings are Government Ministers having with university students, so that they can explain their concerns? Can we have a simpler refund process? Finally, can there be an automatic refund for those who were locked down? Universities and Government must do the right thing by our young people and their families.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy Portrait Bell Ribeiro-Addy (Streatham) (Lab)
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16 Nov 2020, 6:24 p.m.

They say that a student’s time at university will be the best years of their life, but for thousands of students across the UK at the moment, it is a nightmare. Those of us who enjoyed our time at university are probably thinking that we are lucky that we are not them. They are locked up in their halls of residence, attending freshers events over Zoom and running the risk of contracting the virus during face-to-face teaching.

This year’s first-year university students already had to put up the hellish scandal of A-level results day and now they must contend with the shambles that is this Government’s advice to universities on covid-19. While the pandemic is no one’s fault, the way we deal with it must be. Tuition fees have been a controversial topic of debate over the past couple of decades—I was against them then and am against them now. Although it has been stated time and again, it cannot be said enough that education should be a right and not a privilege. We should not charge for it. Ironically, the Cabinet Ministers who were the driving force behind tripling tuition fees some years ago probably went to university free of charge and at the expense of the taxpayer. They have effectively pulled up the drawbridge behind them.

The commercialisation of higher education is a big shame for this country. Lumbering 21-year-olds with £50,000-worth of debt is absolutely disgraceful. When we look at other countries across the world we see thriving, high-income countries investing in their higher education while we push the cost on to students and their families. We will hear again, “It’s fine. You won’t have to repay it until you start earning £26,000-plus a year,” but the psychological toll that that massive amount of debt leaves on an individual is not mentioned. We all know that pay now or pay later, debt is still debt, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds will always take longer to pay it back and will suffer harsher consequences.

At the moment, university students are paying £9,250 a year to attend university, or, as some of them say, £9,250 to effectively live in prison-like conditions. Students in Manchester have dubbed their university “Her Majesty’s Prison, Manchester University” because fences have been put up to keep them in. Students are paying to stay in halls while watching their lectures online over Zoom and many other platforms. International students from Europe have been asked to come to this country, but, having left their countries, they are attending their lectures online.

I studied biomedical sciences for my first degree, and I think of all the biomedical scientists at the moment who are in their first year of university and probably struggling to attend lectures online. I think about how they get on without all the laboratory work that they have to do. They are simply not getting the education that they need for that course, and I expect that that is the case for many courses. That is all off the back of shoddy advice that called for face-to-face teaching to resume, despite everyone saying that it was a terrible idea. As a result, approximately 2,600 university students and staff have contracted the virus, and many more have had to self-isolate.

The decision to return to face-to-face teaching was dangerous, as has been said by the University and College Union and unions at Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere. They have explicitly stated that it has put staff and students in harm’s way. It is ridiculous to tell students to return to face-to-face teaching, only for them to get to university to find that they are sitting in front of their laptops in their halls of residence. After sending students back to live in communal halls, what happened next was inevitable: a spike in coronavirus cases in university cities. Once again, that was entirely avoidable if we had planned properly for the second wave. It is a scandal that students are literally being made to pay for this.

It is ludicrous to expect students to continue paying extortionate tuition fees when they are not receiving a full service. With any other service, if a customer was dissatisfied or something prevented them from receiving a service to the advertised standard, it would be reasonable for them to demand a refund, so why is it any different for students? We cannot treat university education as a commodity in one respect and not in others. It is either a market commodity, in which case a refund can be requested for a poor service, or it is not, in which case it should be free.

Charging individuals overall to pursue higher education is wrong at the most basic level, but to continue to charge them now is profoundly wrong. It is simply outrageous. The Government must ultimately consider cancelling tuition fees entirely, but in the meantime they should consider refunding the cost of tuition for the entire time that students’ university experience is impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Claudia Webbe Portrait Claudia Webbe (Leicester East) (Ind)
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16 Nov 2020, 6:29 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for securing this important debate.

Taken together, these five petitions reflect the inexcusable way that students have been treated during this pandemic. I share the sentiment behind each of them, and I stand in solidarity with the students in Leicester and across the country who have stood up against their mistreatment, but I believe that the demands of the petitions, which focus on partial rebates of tuition fees, do not go far enough. After all, the current crisis is not the fault of students. It was this Government who failed to listen to trade unions and scientific experts and allowed students to attend universities just as coronavirus cases were beginning to rise.

In late August, the University and College Union warned against students returning to university. It rightly raised fears that the migration of more than 1 million students across the UK risked doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst health crisis of our lifetimes. That was especially the case given the Government’s failure to introduce a properly functioning track-and-trace system and the fact that they do not have any UK-wide plans to test students and staff regularly. A few weeks after the University and College Union’s warning, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended a shift to online learning

“unless face-to-face teaching is absolutely essential”,

yet that was ignored too. The result has been as devastating as it was predictable.

I studied mathematics, statistics and computers for my first degree in Coventry, and I can tell hon. Members that the numbers do not add up. To date, there have been more than 45,000 positive cases of coronavirus on university campuses, including 500 at the University of Leicester and a further 500 at De Montfort University in my constituency of Leicester East. Leicester has been in perpetual lockdown, or special measures, for the longest time of any city, yet we still face those problems.

I pay tribute to all university staff across both universities in Leicester, who are producing innovative solutions, including in-house regular testing, which is unique to the University of Leicester, flexible accommodation contracts and blended learning. They are doing all that in exceptional, difficult circumstances to provide for our students in Leicester.

The fault does not rest with universities. According to the National Union of Students, 20% of students have confirmed that they will not be able to pay their rent and essential bills this term, and three in four students are anxious about paying their rent, which demonstrates that they are desperately in need of urgent financial support from the Government. As we have heard, students have been forced to stay in their university halls, which has placed an intolerable strain on their mental health. In some cases, fences have been built around the accommodation that, just months ago, students were assured would be safe to attend, and they are being forced to pay £9,000 per year for the privilege.

Under the Conservatives, universities have been treated as private businesses and left at the mercy of market forces while top salaries soar and students pay more for less. Tuition fees have trebled and maintenance grants have been scrapped, leaving the poorest graduates with an average debt of £57,000. A University of Manchester student said recently:

“We’re being treated as though we exist for profit, for money, and nothing else.”

Will the Minister tell universities to halt in-person teaching as soon as possible, help students stay at home after Christmas if necessary, and issue clear guidance about moving as much non-essential work as possible online, in line with other workplaces? The Government must work with student representatives to ensure that students are not forced to pay for the suffering that they have been forced to endure.

Will the Government move beyond that and scrap tuition fees for good? We all benefit from an educated society. Education is not just vital for our economy; it lets people develop their talents and overcome injustices and inequalities, and helps us understand each other and form social bonds. The last decade of extortionate tuition fees has been a failed experiment, which has saddled young people with debt, deterred working-class people from gaining a higher education and turned our universities into profit-seeking businesses. Can the Government simply follow the example of most of our European neighbours by scrapping fees and ensuring that young people are not punished for seeking an education?

--- Later in debate ---
Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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16 Nov 2020, 12:04 a.m.

Yes, that is exactly what I said. The Department has allocated that money across educational settings and care leavers in higher education can access that. However, we have encouraged universities to prioritise digital poverty and accessibility. Accessibility is something that the OFS has been strong on, because everyone should have access to education of quality. The Secretary of State has also commissioned the chair of the OFS to conduct a review of digital learning and teaching, including digital poverty.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy Portrait Bell Ribeiro-Addy
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Is the Minister aware that, more generally, a number of schools did not receive the devices that were promised by the Government before the end of the summer, and that when many of them came back in September they were sent emails saying that the number of devices they had been promised for the children, on the basis of what is allowed for care leavers and so on, was reduced?

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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16 Nov 2020, 12:06 a.m.

You will correct me if I am wrong, Sir David, but I believe that question is slightly out of scope for a petition on higher education. In relation to higher education, my understanding is that the care leavers who have needed those devices have received them. If any hon. Member knows of cases to the contrary, I would be more than happy to pick that matter up.

I agree with many of the points that have been made about the crucial role that universities play in social mobility, including the point, made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), about the economic recovery. Universities will be vital in that mission as we progress.

This has been an unprecedented year, so it is really important to recognise the tireless work of university lecturers, administrators and support staff over the past few months, and how students have adapted. However, I will make one message clear today: students have not been forgotten. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that universities uphold their obligations under consumer law. We must ensure that students and staff are safe and supported, and that students receive the high quality of education that they rightly expect.