It is a truism that this ‘unprecedented’ global pandemic has so dramatically altered the ways of life we all took for granted. For some, the economic effects of lockdown or the physical impacts of the disease itself have been felt harder than others. But for the UK student population, the situation has raised some important concerns about the future.
A recently circulated petition, with over 337,000 signatures, called on the UK government to debate whether higher education students should be issued some refund for teaching lost in the COVID-19 outbreak and University and College Union (UCU) strikes beforehand. Although the government is yet to debate the issue, they have issued a response. They suggest that students ‘should speak to their university to see if they can resolve their complaint.’ It says much about how universities are managed when students feel they must resort to government intervention – so little is the student voice worth. University students are in this unique position where, despite the fact that we pay for our education, we seemingly have little influence over it.
The global COVID-19 pandemic is not the only recent crisis higher education has had to deal with. Three instances of lecturers’ strikes have taken place during the four years we have attended university. Lecturers have resorted to going without pay for extended periods to protest multiple issues: unfavourable workload and working hours, declining staff pay compounded by racial and gender pay gaps, inadequate job security and increased pension contributions. Owen Jones of The Guardian recently wrote of how the fabled reforms to higher education has opened up the unenviable marketisation of the system. With no cap on student numbers, universities compete for applicants with admissions rising more quickly than new staff hires, which is wholly detrimental to the overall quality of education. Can a lecture hall filled with one lecturer to 400 students really be the best way to educate and inspire learning in individuals?
In the context of our experience at the University of Edinburgh, it appears that the senior management have adapted their excuses for why no refunds will be automatically offered to the crisis at hand. During the periods of strikes, refunds weren’t offered because teaching was only part of the value of a degree, and as resources and facilities were still available to use, students should not have felt that there had been a significant impact to their studies. Now, during the disruption that has been caused from COVID-19, the justification for withholding refunds appears to have been reversed: if the teaching has been put online, then the quality remains the same. Yet this completely ignores that, during this time, access to physical resources are not available and the facilities upon which we depend are now closed. Their response also assumes that the quality of teaching online is equal to teaching in person. With the Open University offering online degrees for a third of the price of an ‘in person’ degree, should universities be charging the full amount for an entirely different educational experience?
In the past month we have learned that other providers of paid-for education, such as independent schools, have also had to accommodate this new reality in education. It should come as no surprise that some independent schools have offered refunds or reduced fees for the final term as an acknowledgement that they are simply not able to provide the full education that fee-paying parents look for.
In any other walk of life, as a consumer of goods or services you are granted protection under the law if they do not meet the standards you expect. If you were to buy a gym membership for example, and access to it could not be provided, you would be entitled to a refund. A university should be similarly obliged where they are unable to offer the complete educational experience, as expected. And as our own institution has pointed out, this is not just reflected by the teaching but by our access to everything else besides: use of resources, campus buildings, face-to-face teaching and field trips. In this current situation, the university is no longer able to provide this.
Unfortunately, as students, it appears we do not have this same consumer protection. Despite the fact that the student body nationwide consists of over 1.8 million people, our voice remains ignored. This is reflected in the government’s response to the situation too. Universities continue to argue that the quality of teaching hasn’t changed as a result of this new situation – when clearly it has.
The cost of further education has never been greater, and disruption to the service has never been more profound. Universities must offer a partial refund of student fees this year to reflect the disruption and reduction in quality that has been experienced. A student’s voice is often overlooked. It shouldn’t be.
Image: LSE Library via Flickr