MP Catherine McKinnell chaired the petitions committee hearing Wikimedia/Chris McAndrew

A national petition which calls to ‘reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19’, had its first parliamentary discussion in an evidence hearing held by the petitions committee on the 7th May.

The petition, which now has the support of 340,459 signatories, is in light of claims that students have not received the level of education and services for which they pay tuitions fees.

Yesterday, Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, told Varsity that Cambridge will continue to charge normal tuition fees next academic year. Home students will continue to pay £9,250 and international students will continue to pay the higher fees as in previous years. This follows the revelation that all Cambridge lectures will be online-only next year, whilst it is hoped that other teaching and learning methods will continue to be held in person.

Sophie Quinn, the creator of the national petition, argues that ‘overall, university quality is poor this year and certainly not worth up to £9,250’ students should receive a full or partial reimbursement for this year’s tuition fees. Quinn claims that there has been a reduction in the amount and quality of teaching as a result of strike action and Covid-19 social distancing measures. The evidence session, which was attended by representatives from the the Universities and College Union (UCU), National Union of Students (NUS), and Universities UK as well as Quinn, was held by the petitions committee. The session discussed the petition and the wider impact of Covid-19 restrictions on students.

The discussion of the parliamentary hearing, which was overseen by MP Catherine McKinnell who is Chair of the Petitions Committee, largely centred around the findings of a petitions committee poll of students and staff nationally. This poll, which received 24,000 responses, found that while only 6% of students were satisfied or very satisfied with the education they had received, 98% of students were still paying full fees and 47% were still paying for accommodation they could not use. The poll also found that, out of five potential options, a partial refund was the most popular solution, followed by a full refund as the second most popular option.

The petition, although surpassing the 100,000 signatures required for parliamentary debate, has thus far received little attention from the government and has been waiting almost sixty days for debate. A government response to the petition, on the 16th April, did little other than repeat the measures the government has already taken and made no mention of the possibility of a full or partial reimbursement. The petitions committee has requested a revised response from the government on the grounds that ‘they felt that the response did not directly address the request of petition’. No further response has yet been issued.

The evidence session itself, now with over 64,000 views on Youtube, highlighted the growing divide between the government, the universities, staff and students. Zamzam Ibrahim, the national president of the NUS, argued strongly in favour of the reimbursement scheme stating that “it is important to recognise that students are not getting the quality of education that they opted for and that they expect. If we are operating in a climate where education has been marketised to students, it falls under the Consumer Rights Act. Students have the right to call out their institutions and say, this is not the quality of education I opted for and am essentially paying £9,000 for’.”

Dr Jo Grady, General secretary of the UCU, proposed that the anger of students is systematic of a wider problem with the way universities have been managed. Speaking to Varsity, Grady said that “the crisis should force us to look properly at the manner in which our universities are funded and how students have to pay to study. The market-driven approach hasn’t worked and there will be sympathy for students – forced to see themselves as consumers – not getting what they thought they were paying for.”

However, Grady also recognised the financial implications for universities, urging that “you cannot simply cut off further funding for universities at this time, so any reduction would need to be made up by the government.”

Grady also argued that unfair pressure resulting from student frustrations has been directed at the most vulnerable members of staff. Staff, including those with insecure employment on fixed term contracts, have been forced to bear the bulk of the effort to shift learning online at short notice.

The growing discrepancy between the views of staff and students is reflected in the findings of the petitions committee survey. The data indicates that despite 79% of students being dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their education, 57% of staff felt that their institutions were doing enough. While 87% of students recorded that teaching times have decreased due to social distancing, 71% of staff surveyed held that workloads had remained the same or increased.

Universities UK, represented at the hearing by Professor Julia Buckingham CBE, staunchly opposed any potential refund, stating that refunds “would put many of them [universities] under severe financial pressure.” However, while opposed to any general refund policy, Buckingham did advise that “individual cases” should be considered. She recommended “that students who are seriously concerned take it up with their university in the first instance. If they do not get a satisfactory answer from the university, they can then take it to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator”.

Quinn objected, proposing that “looking at it on an individual basis would not only be a waste of university resources and quite inefficient, but all students have been affected by this situation.”


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Cambridge too seems to be holding fast to the line of no refund, no reduction. In yesterday’s interview with Varsity, Virgo emphasised that “the tuition fee of £9,250 is less than half the cost of an undergraduate education so students are contributing through tuition fees to the cost of their education.”

Virgo also proposed that University life would include a return to the level of services and education that students have come to expect. Although lectures will be moved online, Virgo insists that “everything else,” including seminars and practicals would be returning. Virgo also suggests that use of facilities such as libraries, the loss of which has been a key motivator for those campaigning for reimbursement, may reopen in October. He explained that there is a “recovery plan for reopening libraries as soon as it is safe to do so and within the context of social distancing” and that he was “confident” libraries would reopen.

No consensus had been reached by the end of the parliamentary evidence session, with no definitive answer on the possibility of reimbursement. NUS, UCU, and Universities UK remained at odds.UCU blamed universities for not properly protecting staff, the NUS insisted that students had not received what they had paid for, and Universities UK accused the government of not providing a bail-out to patch the £6.9 billion hole in the budget caused by the loss of international students.

The session concluded with Quinn reiterating that one of the biggest questions of the debate has still not been addressed. Quinn told the committee “I would just like to reiterate my point that students are quite frustrated because the question about our tuition fees—so where the money is actually going, since we do not have access to facilities—is still unanswered”.