Universities Should Refund Fees If Teaching Has Fallen Short, Says Watchdog

Universities should offer students refunds on fees if their teaching has fallen short as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a higher education watchdog.

Students around the world have seen their education disrupted as a result of repeated lockdowns.

While many universities quickly shifted to remote teaching, it has still left many students feeling they are missing out on face-to-face teaching or the opportunity for hands-on practical learning.

And today the U.K.’s universities watchdog has called for universities to consider whether they have delivered the teaching they promised – and to refund tuition fees where they have fallen short.

U.K. universities can charge up to £9,250 ($12,650) a year in tuition fees, but many students were forced to leave campus early last semester, and latest government guidelines are that face-to-face teaching for most students will not resume until the middle of next month at the earliest.

Although the Office for Students (OfS) does not have the power to compel universities to offer refunds, its intervention adds to the pressure on universities to reimburse students who have lost out as a result of the pandemic.

In today’s letter to universities, the OfS urged higher education providers to review whether they have met the commitments they made to students about the teaching they could expect this year, and about what alternative arrangements would be in place.

The letter asks universities whether they were sufficiently clear about how teaching would be delivered, and whether students have received the teaching they were promised.

Universities were also asked to consider whether their plans for the remainder of the academic year ensure that students receive the teaching and assessment they were promised.

The OfS said it had heard from a number of students that universities have not always been clear about what was promised, and have not always delivered on their promises.

Where universities have fallen short, universities should take remedial action, such as putting on extra lectures, repeating parts of the course or offering refunds on tuition fees, the OfS said.

‘If you conclude that new or returning students were not provided with sufficiently clear information about how teaching and assessment would be delivered in 2020-21, or that teaching and assessment were not delivered as promised, we expect you actively to consider your obligations under consumer law for refunds or other forms of redress,’ the letter said.

Nicola Dandridge, OfS chief executive, said many universities had worked tirelessly to ensure students received good quality teaching.

But even when their ability to fulfil their commitments has been hampered by events beyond their control, they should offer alternatives or consider providing refunds, she said.

Universities should also consider refunding the cost of accommodation, where students have been asked not to return to university halls, she added.

Universities are facing mounting pressure to offer refunds to students affected by the pandemic.

A quarter of a million people signed a petition to the House of Commons towards the end of last year calling on universities to partially refund tuition fees.

Over the summer, the government actively encouraged students to return to universities, in the expectation of receiving face-to-face teaching, while universities that drew up plans for online-only teaching were forced to backtrack in the face of criticism.

Now the Government has washed its hands of the issue, saying students should complain to the higher education adjudicator if requests for a refund fall on deaf ears.

But the University and College Union (UCU), which represents many staff in higher education, said the government should cover the costs of any refunds, as well as any extra teaching provided.

‘Universities cannot be expected to cover the costs of refunds, rebates and extensions without government support,’ said UCU general secretary Jo Grady.

Universities UK, which represents 140 higher education institutions, has acknowledged that students have not received a normal university experience, but said universities had invested heavily in digital learning platforms.

The government should seriously consider what support they can provide for both students and universities affected by the pandemic, Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK told the Guardian last week.

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