Photo by Rennett Stowe (CC BY 2.0)
The UK government has rejected a recommendation to implement a centralised system to process student loan refunds. The recommendation was made in a July 13th report published by the Petitions Committee, in response to several online petitions for tuition refunds. The largest of these petitions, titled ‘Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19,’ garnered over 350,000 signatures.
The Petitions Committee report, titled ‘The impact of COVID-19 on university students,’ acknowledged huge disruptions to the student experience due to difficulties accessing online materials and the lack of access to university facilities. It also acknowledged that these problems were especially prevalent in disadvantaged students.
However, the report rejected the notion that there should be a universal refund, citing “evidence that universities, lecturers and support staff have made tremendous efforts to continue to deliver university courses in uniquely challenging circumstances, and some students have continued to receive an excellent education.”
The report elaborated that although refunds should be on a case-by-case basis, the government should establish a new system to centralize and simplify refund requests, basing verdicts on independent assessments of education quality. Considering the poor financial situation of higher education this year, the report also recommended that the government provide financial help with refunds by voiding student loans or directly reimbursing students.
The government response to the Petitions Committee report came on the 11th September. The government took issue with these last two recommendations, pointing out the unique circumstances and agreements of individual student-university contracts. They asserted that universities must uphold their contractual obligations to provide quality education, but that student dissatisfaction and refund-seeking should be directed to existing legal avenues.
“The Government is clear that students have rights under consumer law and has set out the process they should follow if they have been dissatisfied with their provider’s response to COVID-19,” stated the government response.
These existing processes were listed in the response as the complaints system of the individual university, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA), or the courts. They replied to the suggestion of government-back refunds by citing other aid they were already providing to universities, including government-backed loans and the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
Petitions Committee Chair Catherine McKinnell MP replied on the 16th of September: “We welcome the Government’s acceptance that students should be able to take action if they are unsatisfied with their university’s response to the pandemic, as well as the additional guidance that is being published to address the lack of clarity we highlighted as to when students are entitled to a refund.
We are also pleased the Government has provided financial support to universities during the pandemic. However, this falls far short of our request to consider alternative means to reimburse students who are entitled to a refund, so that this additional burden does not fall on universities.”
Her reply ended with an assurance that the committee would continue to press the government on the issue.
If you’re a Bangor University student, and have an opinion on how Bangor has handled Covid-19, your point of contact is Undeb Bangor, your Students’ Union. Undeb Bangor represents the student voice in talks with the university, and is a first port-of-call for influencing the future of the student experience.