From education to employment

MPs call on Government to increase support for universities and students amid ‘huge’ Coronavirus disruption

“Given the importance of the higher education sector to the UK economy, and the exceptional circumstances facing both universities and university students, we have recommended the Government consider funding universities to provide any refunds university students are entitled to as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.”

The Petitions Committee has today (13 Jul) launched a report calling on the Government to take urgent action and review the support for universities and students in the face of the “greatest challenge they have faced for generations”.

More than 347,000 people have signed an e-petition calling for the Government to Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19. Over the course of its investigation, the Committee received over 28,000 responses from students, parents and university staff who shared their experiences and views on the impact of the outbreak on university education and on the actions they think the Government needs to take.

The report on the impact of Covid-19 on university students, published this morning, comes following an inquiry where thousands of students raised concerns that they had not received a reasonable standard of education due to Coronavirus. During the investigation, the Committee also heard evidence on how the outbreak has impacted in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those on more hands-on courses where students need to use university facilities.

Research by the Petitions Committee found that just 7% of students surveyed felt satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of their education they are currently receiving. The same research found that 87% of students noted their teaching hours had decreased since social distancing guidelines were introduced. Meanwhile, 47% of students surveyed revealed they were paying for university accommodation they don’t currently need.

The report recommends the Government take a number of urgent actions, including clarifying how and when students can claim refunds or repeat parts of their courses, making it easier for those who believe they haven’t received the education they are entitled to seek a refund, and to consider providing additional support for students whose courses have been affected by the outbreak.

The detailed report also recommends that the Government provides emergency funding to universities, to support them in refunding eligible students as they may already face costs of up to £2.5 billion in lost fees and teaching grant income alone.

Key findings and recommendations made in the report include:

  • A significant number of students have told us they are not receiving the standard of education that they had expected, feel they are entitled to, or which offers true value-for-money in light of the amount they are paying in tuition fees.
  • Many students have experienced difficulties accessing the online content that has been made available, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and courses where students need to use university facilities have been particularly affected.
  • Students have also faced a number of practical challenges as a result of the outbreak, including in many cases loss of income and difficulties with accommodation.
  • In at least some cases universities have been able to provide courses in a way that students believe is good value for money. We do not therefore believe that there should be a universal refund or reimbursement of tuition fees to all university students.
  • Students have a right to seek a refund or to repeat part of their course if the service provided by their university is substandard, but the exact circumstances in which students should expect to receive a refund or be able to repeat part of their course are not clear.
  • The Government should work with universities, the Office for Students, and Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to:
    • produce guidance on when current and future university students may be entitled to seek a refund or to repeat part of their course,
    • establish a new system which enables all students to easilyseek a full or partial refund of their tuition fees, or to repeat part of their course.
    • ensure that all students are advised of their consumer rights and are given clear guidance on how to avail themselves of these if they feel their university has failed to provide an adequate standard of education.
  • The Government should consider providing additional funding to universities to enable them to pay any refunds university students are entitled to as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. The Government could also consider alternative means for reimbursing students, where an independent process has found that they are entitled to a refund.
  • The Government should consider making additional funding available to students who might want to extend their education after the outbreak, and to provide ongoing employment advice and support beyond graduation in what is likely to be an extremely challenging employment market.

Chair of the Petitions Committee, Catherine McKinnell MP, said:

“As the Government take steps to protect the economy from COVID-19, it is vital that they now take urgent action to ensure students, and our vitally important institutions, are not left behind as the virus continues to wreak havoc on our higher education system.

“We are calling on the Government to give clarity on students’ rights to a refund for their education. We also believe the Government should consider funding universities to support them in reimbursing student’s fees where it is clear their experience and service has fallen short due to the incredibly challenging situation we have been facing.

“Despite the hard work of lecturers and support staff, some universities have been unable to provide courses in a way that students feel is good value for money. Therefore, while we do not consider that a blanket refund for all students is necessarily required, we believe that the Government has a role in ensuring any student whose university experience has fallen short is compensated.

“The Coronavirus pandemic and its effect on UK universities represents the greatest challenge they have faced for generations. If the Government fails to offer a comprehensive and accessible support package for both universities and students, then we face letting down an entire generation, and critically damaging a sector that will play a crucial role in our country’s post-Covid economic recovery.”

Larissa Kennedy, NUS President comments:

“NUS has been calling for the Government to provide a Student Safety Net since the scale of the impact on students became clear. The Petitions Committee’s recommendations would go a long way in achieving this aim, with targeted fee reimbursements and debt write-offs. We also welcome the references to support for further study or to redo elements of the course.

Although the report highlights some of our key asks for education leavers, the recent Treasury announcements for graduates do not go far enough and we would like to see an extended economic support package put in place.

Covid-19 has exposed and exacerbated the cracks in a broken higher education system, and hit students from disadvantaged and underrepresented communities the hardest. It is critical that the Government acts on these suggestions, but they must also go further. We are calling for universal compensation, and for the Government to protect our education sector from the failed project of marketisation before they lose the faith of millions of students. “

As part of the detailed survey work undertaken during the inquiry, the Petitions Committee spoke with students and relatives of students, as well as some academics. One student commented “Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are impacted the most. Some may not have access to the internet or a laptop and even if they do, they won’t have a stable internet connection and a quiet place to work unlike their privileged counterparts.” Another student raised concerns about the knock-on effects of lower quality education, saying “It isn’t a case of will the medics, dentists and vets of this year come out as less trained individuals but a question of how much poorer will their practice be. The future care of humans and animals will suffer.”

The latest in-depth report from the Petitions Committee forms part of the inquiry into the Government’s response to coronavirus. It follows two evidence sessions and extensive public engagement in recent months investigating the impact the crisis has had on students and universities. During these sessions the Committee heard from students who had been directly impacted by the outbreak, education sector representatives, and Government Ministers.

The Petitions Committee have now submitted the report for consideration, and expect to receive a response from the Government within 2 months.

Since the report was agreed by the Committee, the Chancellor gave his Summer statement on the economy, and announced that further support will be provided to new graduates as they enter a challenging employment market, which the Committee recommends in its report.

The report’s annex contains detailed analysis of the extensive public engagement work and a wide range of example quotes from students affected by coronavirus. 

The Petitions Committee is set up by the House of Commons to look at e-petitions and public (paper) petitions. It can:

    1. ask for more information in writing—from petitioners, the Government, or other relevant people or organisations
    2. ask for more information in person—from petitioners, the Government, or other relevant people or organisations. This might be in Parliament or somewhere else in the UK
    3. write to the Government or another public body to press for action on a petition
    4. ask another parliamentary committee to look into the topic raised by a petition
    5. put forward petitions for debate in the House of Commons

The Committee is currently made up of 11 backbench Members of Parliament from Government and Opposition parties. The number of seats each party has is calculated to reflect the membership of the House as a whole. The Chair of the Committee was elected on 29 January 2020. The members of the Committee are:

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