The impact of Covid-19 on university students Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

How the Covid-19 outbreak has affected university courses

1.The Covid-19 outbreak has hugely disrupted the education of university students. 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. We have heard from many students who feel that the way in which courses are currently being delivered does not represent value for money for the tuition fees they pay. 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. (Paragraph 15)

2.We have heard evidence that universities, lecturers and support staff have made tremendous efforts to continue to deliver university courses in uniquely challenging circumstances, and some students have continued to receive an excellent education. 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. (Paragraph 16)

Refunding tuition fees

3.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. Furthermore, given the scale of the disruption that has been caused by Covid-19—in addition to the strikes earlier in the year—and the numbers of students who may feel they are entitled to some form of reimbursement, it is not acceptable to expect individual students to seek satisfaction through existing complaints procedures or the courts. A new process needs to be put in place to consider complaints arising from Covid-19, and other out-of-the-ordinary events that affect the courses of large numbers of students, including large-scale strikes. The Government should work with the Office for Students and Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to produce guidance on the circumstances in which university students are likely to be entitled to seek a refund or to repeat part of their course, and to establish a new system which enables all students to easily seek a full or partial refund of their tuition fees, or to repeat part of their course, based on an independent and objective assessment of the quality of education they have received over the academic year. (Paragraph 23)

4.While it appears that to date relatively few students have raised formal complaints with their universities or taken individual action to seek a refund of their tuition fees, many students are not happy with how university courses are being delivered. It is essential that all students are made aware of their rights, and how to raise a complaint and seek a refund if they are not satisfied with the education they are receiving. The Government should work with universities and the Office for Students to 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. This should include details of how to access any new system which is developed in response to our previous recommendation. (Paragraph 24)

5.If a university has failed to provide the education a student has paid for, the student is entitled to a refund from that university. However, given the likely impact of Covid-19 on universities—which could cost them around £2.5 billion in fees and teaching grant income alone—there is a risk that a large number of students requesting and being entitled to a refund could have a serious and detrimental effect on the sustainability of the higher education sector. That is not, however, a reason to prevent students from receiving any refunds to which they are entitled. (Paragraph 30)

6.The Government has put in place unprecedented financial support measures to respond to Covid-19, paying the salaries of hundreds of thousands of employees nationally, and funding grants and loans for a huge number of businesses and industries. These are exceptional actions, in exceptional circumstances. Given the importance of the higher education sector to the UK economy, and the exceptional circumstances facing both universities and university students, 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, such as reducing student loans of students who are entitled to a refund. (Paragraph 31)

Looking to the future

7.While it is too early to know what effect the Covid-19 outbreak will have on university courses in the next academic year, there will not be a return to business as usual. We hope that all universities will be able to effectively deliver every university course to the standard that students are entitled, but if this is not the case students whose courses are affected by the Covid-19 outbreak in the next academic year should have the same easily accessible recourse to seek a refund or to repeat part of their course that we have recommended should apply to students in the current academic year. Any new arrangements that are put in place to better enable students to access refunds for tuition fees, where they believe they are not receiving the education they are entitled to, should be available to all students whose courses are affected by the Covid-19 outbreak in future academic years. (Paragraph 34)

8.University students whose courses have been affected by Covid-19, particularly those in their final year, are understandably concerned about the impact the disruption to their courses could have on their futures. We welcome the Government’s acknowledgment of these concerns, and its plans to look at the overall range of support offered to graduates who are looking to enter the labour market or continue their studies at this challenging time. As part of its work to consider support offered to graduates entering the labour market, the Government should consider making additional funding available to students who might want to extend their education—either by retaking part of their course or taking additional courses—after the outbreak, and to provide ongoing employment advice and support beyond graduation in what is likely to be an extremely challenging employment market. (Paragraph 37)

Published: 13 July 2020