Student fees: demands for refund after Covid disrupts teaching

For Susan Clandillon, it is a matter of fairness. The 29-year-old, who has paid £9,250 out of her savings to study fashion design and business at the University of Brighton, says she has spent fewer than 18 days in total using the college’s workshops this academic year.

At least she had some limited access during the first term. Nathan Conboy, who is studying popular music production at Huddersfield, says he has not spent a single hour using the college’s specialist studio equipment that he and other fourth-year students were expecting to make use of in order to hone their recording skills.

“The lecturers are all trying their very best, and we really appreciate what they are doing, but some courses just can’t be taught online. It’s just not working,” Conboy says.

Both are among the thousands of students who are calling on the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to order tuition fee rebates for those on courses that have been seriously affected by Covid-19.

Many students are asking why a government that has offered financial assistance to so many other groups in society – through the furlough scheme, benefits uprating, help for small and large businesses and so on – has all but abandoned those on degree courses.

Not only have students been expected to pay full fees of £9,250 a year, those in private rented accommodation have typically had to pay full rent, whether they have been living in their digs or not. Others have been forced further into debt as part-time work options all but disappeared overnight.

The National Union of Students says “students have been consistently exploited and ignored during this pandemic”, adding that they are seen as “cash cows” and treated like “pound signs rather than people”.

Williamson, though, was keener to talk about new legislation to enable academics and visiting speakers who are no-platformed to sue universities for infringements of free speech.

However, he will have to face another debate in parliament in the spring. A second petition calling on the government to lower this year’s fees from £9,250 to £3,000 has so far been signed by more than half a million people. In November, a similar one prompted a debate in the Commons. During that, ministers dismissed the mass rebate of fees and said it was up to universities to deal with complaints on an individual basis.

“The whole year has been incredibly frustrating,” says Clandillon, who is self-funding her fashion course after saving up while working for an environmental non-governmental organisation.

“We all expected to be spending most days in workshops, using all the facilities including the sewing machines, mannequins, etc but the lockdowns have put paid to that. My tutors are making every effort to provide the best possible online learning environment – I have only praise for the staff – but it is not what the course promised. I don’t feel that I should be forced to complain about the people who will ultimately mark my final degree when none of the problems are of their making or their fault.”

Susan Clandillon
Susan Clandillon, who is self-funding her fashion course after saving up, says: ‘The whole year has been incredibly frustrating.’ Photograph: Susan Clandillon

She points out that online-only courses such as those offered by the Open University charge tuition fees of £6,192 a year. The current petition calls on fees to be cut to £3,000 for this year’s students.

“If universities are now businesses, as we are so often told, we should be entitled to the same consumer protections as someone buying a new television or a new car. Gavin Williamson must take into account that students are getting a raw deal and do something,” she says.

In Huddersfield, Conboy, cites a very similar experience.

“Most of our course just can’t be taught online – you have to be in the room to hear the sounds, and a lot of students are at the end of their tether. Students who didn’t have decent laptops have found the hardship funds impossible to access and, instead, have had to go further into debt just to be able to carry on the course online. We are supposed to be spending the rest of the year working with the recording equipment to improve our employability. Everyone is very frustrated.”

Conboy, a student representative, has been in online talks with the university, and says he has come to…

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