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Petitions Committee welcomes some parts of Government response to Coronavirus university report but warns over other areas

Petitions Committee welcomes some parts of Government response to Coronavirus university report but warns over other areas

The House of Commons Petitions Committee has warned that the Government 'risk leaving students paying for a standard of education they're simply not receiving.'

The comment by the Petitions Committee's chair Catherine McKinnell MP comes following a government response to a report by the Committee regarding the impact of COVID-19 on university students.  

Published in July, the report followed an in-depth inquiry by the Committee including the gathering of evidence from thousands of students as well as parents and university staff about the impact of COVID-19 on students and the higher education sector more generally. The inquiry was launched after more than 351,000 people signed an e-petition calling for the Government to reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19.

University students have seen their education and university experience significantly disrupted during the last year, with universities cancelling face-to-face teaching as lockdown measures were implemented in March. Some students were asked to sit alternative exams online, while others saw their exams cancelled altogether, causing more disruption in an academic year where students had already been impacted by two rounds of strike action by members of the Universities & Colleges Union.

In official correspondence published on Wednesday, the Government accepted that students should be able to take action if they are unsatisfied with their university's response to the pandemic. However, the Government rejected the Petitions Committee’s recommendation for a new centralised system to enable all students to easily seek a full or partial refund of their tuition fees, or to repeat part of their course.

Many students managed to receive some form of refund for unused university accommodation during the summer term, however, students have generally not received reimbursements for their tuition fees, which many have argued is needed given debates over the quality of online teaching.  

Earlier in the summer, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan MP said that any claims for refunds of fees need to reviewed on a "case-by-case" basis - though many students have disagreed and complained about the lengthy processes that they often have to go through in order to claim for refunds.

The Petitions Committee called on the Government to consider different means to reimburse students such as writing off loans, with the finances of many universities coming under severe pressure over recent months.

In response to the call, the Department for Education said;

“The Government recognises that a number of students graduating in 2020 will face challenges gaining employment due to the adverse impact on the UK labour market and economy, during the COVID-19 recovery period. We have put unprecedented measures in place to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our economy as far as possible, by providing extensive support to protect businesses and jobs, through the furlough scheme, grants, loans and tax cuts, which has protected thousands of businesses and millions of people.”

The economic impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic have left some students and young people concerned about their future prospects. This week, new data from the Office for National Statistics showed that 16-24-year-olds have been hit particularly badly by the impacts of the pandemic, with the age group suffering the biggest drop in employment of any age group in the three months to July.

Commenting on the Government's response to the Committee's report on the impact of COVID-19 on university students, Chair of the Petitions Committee, Catherine McKinnell MP said:

“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.

“A vital recommendation in our report was the establishment of a new system, which would facilitate students seeking a full or partial refund of their tuition fees, or to repeat part of their course. The Government’s rejection of this recommendation, and their failure to recognise the limitations of existing complaints processes, means they risk leaving students paying for a standard of education they’re simply not receiving.

“Whilst we do acknowledge some of the positive steps the Government is taking, it remains to be seen whether these will enable students to secure refunds where they are entitled to them, and whether universities will be able to weather the storm financially.

“My Committee will continue to press the Government on this important issue and ensure that the voices of students are heard.”

It is understood that the Committee will look to schedule a debate between MPs on the Government's response to the report once socially-distanced debates resume in Westminster Hall in October.

The government's response to the report comes in the month that many students are starting a new academic year or joining a university for the first time. The methods of teaching are expected to vary as students return to campuses, with some universities opting for a 'blended learning' approach, while others have said that all content will be delivered online.

 

How can university students claim refunds?

Students who are not satisfied that they have received value for money can complain through their institution. Each institution should have a process for this to take place, though they may be of different lengths and structures to the processes of other institutions.

If a student is not satisfied with the response given by the institution, their case can be reviewed by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education.

 

How is the Government working to ensure that university courses are high quality?

The government has been keen to state that universities and higher education institutions operate as "autonomous organisations", meaning they are largely free to make their own decisions. When she faced questions from the Petitions Committee during its inquiry, the Universities Minister referred to this phrase multiple times.

The Government said in its response to the Committee's report that universities "have the freedom to determine the way their courses are taught, supervised, and assessed." However, providers which are registered with the Office for Students (OfS), which is the higher education regulator in England, must ensure that standards are "protected".

The Government added that the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) has "published a series of guides to support universities/providers to secure academic standards and to support student achievement during the pandemic."

 

The full response from the Government to the Committee's report can be found on Parliament's website.

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