The UK Government’s Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP has faced questions from the House of Commons Petitions Committee on the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on students and the Higher Education sector.
The oral evidence session, which was broadcast live on Parliament TV on Thursday, focused on how the current Coronavirus pandemic has and continues to impact the university sector and students. Many students have faced lost learning time, cancelled or online exams and issues with accommodation as a result of the pandemic, which has come in an academic year also disrupted for many students by two rounds of strikes by UCU members.
In the session, the Universities Minister repeatedly referred to universities and higher education institutions as “autonomous organisations”, meaning they are largely free to make their own decisions. The Minister said that the government sets the maximum amount of fees that universities can charge students, but that universities may charge lower fees if they wish to do so.
The Minister said that universities have remained open and that many students have been receiving online teaching, adding that online teaching is not necessarily inferior to face-to-face teaching. She said that she believed universities have ‘risen to the challenge’ presented by COVID-19, often through the use of technology;
“Universities, I believe have risen to the challenge and really invested quickly in innovative technology, but I do take on board there are numerous students that are unhappy and there will be circumstances where students quite rightly do feel that they haven’t had the deal they paid for.”
She later added, “I don’t want any student to feel they have been forgotten, they certainly haven’t”.
The evidence session on Thursday came as an unprecedented number of people have been engaging with Parliament and the Petitions Committee on the topic of how universities and students have been impacted by the Coronavirus. More than 344,000 people have signed a petition calling for students to be reimbursed of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19, while tens of thousands of people have engaged through surveys and discussions on social media.
In the evidence session, Ms Donelan said that any claims for refunds of fees need to reviewed on a “case-by-case” basis, saying that some students will have a stronger claim to refunds than others. Students who are not satisfied that they have received value for money can complain through their institution. 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.
Some students have though told us that processes for trying to obtain refunds or another resolution can be complicated and time-consuming, which may mean that some students may decide not to go through the processes.
The session also addressed the provisions to be provided by Higher Education institutions in the next academic year. The Minister said that institutions should be making clear to students and applicants what will be on offer next year, saying that for many universities, this will involve a blended learning approach with a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching.
Closing the evidence session, the Chair of the Petitions Committee, Catherine McKinnell MP said;
“I think the resounding message that we’ve had from students is that many of them don’t feel that they’re getting value for money in their education, they feel that they now face fewer opportunities as a result of this crisis and they feel a bit ignored and caught in the middle between universities who provide their education and the government that pay for it upfront”
During the session, Ms Donelan sought to reassure students that they had not been forgotten, saying that extra funds had been made available for hardship funds to help students needing financial support due to the pandemic. Additionally, she added that the Office for Students is continuously working to review the quality of university courses offered to students.
The session on Thursday came after the House of Commons Petitions Committee heard evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on students and universities in another evidence session last month.
You can watch Thursday’s session on-demand on Parliament TV.