Since March, university students up and down the country have been sitting angrily in front of their laptops and PCs, getting their degrees online. It’s been hard for everyone, and that’s no secret, but many students feel that they’ve been forgotten in the country’s journey through the pandemic. However, this week, it sounds like someone might actually be on their side! In recent talks, Gavin Williamson, the nation’s education secretary, has suggested that tuition fee refunds might be needed for the next academic year.
Whilst students who have just graduated, or who have spent the last year learning online won’t benefit from this, it is still a brave statement for Williamson to make. It is likely to cause significant clashes between the government and the higher education sector, as many universities have expressed that they will be keeping online teaching come September. Universities like Leeds have said that some, if not all, of their teaching, will be done virtually in the new academic year, much to students’ chagrin.
This comes after the Prime Minister’s roadmap has taken the nation out of lockdown and back to ‘normal’. Face to face teaching has technically been allowed since May when most universities finished for the summer. So why are universities still opting to host their lectures online?
It is impossible to define exact reasons as to why universities are looking to stay online, with many saying prior to the pandemic that in-person teaching is irreplaceable. However, it is likely that many of the reasons revolve around safety concerns.
Many places of work and businesses are still requesting people wear face masks and social distance, despite the laws changing in the last couple of months, so it is no surprise that universities are looking to keep some safety practices in place. Universities are a melting pot of people from all over the country, which is exactly why things like Fresher’s Flu spread quickly within student communities – so for lectures to continue from September may seem like a big concern to university leaders.
It may also be related to concerns of the recent ‘pingdemic’, with university admin worried that faculty will have to isolate regularly and subsequently not be able to teach, or that students will and not be able to attend their lessons.
What have government officials said?
Gavin Williamson, education secretary, has suggested that students shouldn’t be charged full fees if online teaching is continued in September. This comes after he explained that the general expectation is for students to return to in-person teaching in the forthcoming academic year.
He is one of the first ministers to back any of the talks for tuition fee refunds, despite even The Office of the Independent Adjudicator ordering several refunds to students last year. When discussing the matter, Williamson stressed that the ‘guidance is clear’ and that the government does ‘expect all universities, unless there’s unprecedented reasons, to be moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons, lecturers, face to face’. His decision comes after a record number of students have been accepted onto university courses, with a 5% increase from last year.
The secretary went on to say that he thinks ‘if universities are not delivering, not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees’, which is exactly the argument that students have been making for the last 18 months.
Last year, almost 300,000 people signed a petition saying students should receive at least a partial refund, but the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said she did not accept that online teaching was any less useful than in person, and that fees were used for facilities that were still open during the pandemic. Considering the current lack of restrictions, it is likely that this stance will be continued, and so the refunding of tuition fees may be up for debate once again.