The impact of Covid-19 on university students Contents


1.In recent months the Covid-19 outbreak, and the Government’s response to this, has had a huge impact on every aspect of life. This has resulted in an enormous number of petitions, raising concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on particular groups of people, businesses, the economy, and other areas of society, and requesting action by the Government to respond to these concerns. There are over 600 open petitions about specific aspects of the Government’s response to Covid-19, which combined have received over 4,800,000 signatures. As a result of this enormous level of public interest, in March we launched an inquiry into the Government’s response to Covid-19, to better understand and present the concerns of petitioners to Government.1

2.Several of the largest petitions are about universities and the impact of Covid-19, as well as strike action organised by the University and College Union (UCU) earlier in the year, on university students’ education. These petitions call for university students to be reimbursed all or part of their tuition fees. One petition also calls for rent to be refunded. The following four petitions have received a total of over half a million signatures:

i)e-petition 302855, “Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19”, 347,638 signatures

ii)e-petition 300528, Require universities to reimburse students’ tuition fees during strike action”, 136,360 signatures

iii)e-petition 306494, Refund university students for 3rd Semester Tuition 2020”, 110,505 signatures

iv)e-petition 304855, “Refund university rent and tuition fees due to coronavirus”, 15,191 signatures2

There are also several petitions specifically about international students, who contribute hugely to UK university finances, calling variously for their tuition fees to be refunded, and for changes to immigration arrangements for students who have been affected by the outbreak.3

3.In light of the significant support for petitions calling for students to be refunded their tuition fees for this academic year, we launched an investigation into how university students had been affected by the Covid-19 outbreak and the strikes that have taken place this year. To inform our work we engaged directly with students, parents, and university staff, including tens of thousands of people who signed these petitions, using an online survey. We also spoke directly to the creator of the largest petition on this issue, Sophie Quinn, a final year student at Liverpool University, as well as representatives from the National Union of Students (NUS), the UCU, and Universities UK. We also questioned the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan MP, about the Government’s response to these petitions, and the support the Government is providing to university students and the higher education sector.

4.This report sets out our findings and proposes the actions the Government should take in response to the disruption that university students have faced, and the potential impact on their future career prospects. While we decided to examine the issues raised by these petitions in response to the enormous disruption to university education by Covid-19, the recommendations we make in this report should also ensure that students are better able to seek redress in response to any significant adverse impacts to their courses which have resulted from strike action. We recognise that there are a wide range of ways in which the Covid-19 outbreak has affected students—including loss of income and difficulties exiting tenancy agreements—but this report focuses specifically on the issue raised by the most popular petitions: the impact on university courses and the case for, and practicalities of, refunding tuition fees.

2 Signature counts are as of Tuesday 7 July.

Published: 13 July 2020