Tuition Fees

Chris Evans Excerpts
Monday 16th November 2020

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education

[Relevant Documents: Second Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students, HC 527; Third Special Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019–21, The impact of Covid-19 on university students: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report, HC 780.]

Chris Evans Portrait Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
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16 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir David. I want to thank Miriam Helmers, Sophie Quinn, Wiktoria Seroczynska, Maya Ostrowska and Georgia Henderson for creating the petitions, which have more than 980,000 signatures, collectively—a very significant number. In the order of the names I have given, the petitions are to “Require universities to reimburse students’ tuition fees during strike action”, to “Reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19”, to “Refund university students for 3rd Semester Tuition 2020”, to “Require universities to partially refund tuition fees for 20/21 due to Covid-19” and to “Lower university tuition fees for students until online teaching ends”. Each petition differs slightly from the others, but a common thread runs through them, and that is the fact that hundreds of thousands of students are aggrieved because they have not received adequate value for money from the universities. I want to make it clear that, as the Committee has heard in evidence, university staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to provide teaching during the pandemic. To many petitioners, the fault lies at the door of the universities.

For the last 30 years, school leavers have been told repeatedly by Government and the media that a university degree is the best, if not the only, option to take them towards a fulfilling career. For many, gaining a place at university is the culmination of a lifelong dream. However, it comes at a cost. English universities can charge up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees. So if, for example, someone did a three-year course at £9,250 a year and got £6,378 a year for their maintenance loan they would graduate with £46,884 of debt, and that is before interest is added. By any stretch of the imagination that is a massive amount of money. We would think that if someone is investing that type of money, they deserve an adequate return on the investment, and that if they do not get it, they should be properly compensated. Students simply want value for money.

I want to explain two of the ways in which many students feel they did not receive value for money, because of the pandemic and strikes. The Petitions Committee conducted a survey of people who had signed relevant petitions and received more than 25,000 responses from current students. Most students who responded told the Committee that teaching hours at the universities had fallen because of the pandemic, and they were either “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the quality of the education they were receiving. A student enrolled on a clinical course expressed disappointment at the quality of the teaching. Clinical practice did not take place, and they described the fear that this raised:

“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 drop in teaching hours affects arts students as well. Seminars and debates are difficult to translate into online teaching, especially when there are international students, who are often in different time zones because of the pandemic. That has meant for some that the interactivity of discussion, which is vital to subjects such as history or English literature, is lost. For those who are affected by strike action as well, teaching from January 2020, through to the summer, was minimal.

In a written submission, the National Union of Students expressed a concern:

“A whole cohort of students would lose faith in the UK’s education system if they are not financially reimbursed for missed teaching.”

Wiktoria Seroczynska, the creator of the petition to refund student tuition fees for the third semester of 2020, has told me that among those she has spoken to across different universities,

“comparing the quality of education we were promised to what we have right now, is shocking.” 

She has explained that students feel very let down and have found it difficult to engage with their learning in the same way. Reduced contact hours, a struggle to engage students in online learning, a lack of mental health support and a lack of connectivity with tutors have all contributed to a far reduced experience. The pandemic has meant that universities have been forced to adapt the way in which they provide teaching, but the Government’s delay in giving clearer guidance has often meant rushed decisions. Georgia Henderson, who created the petition to lower tuition fees until online teaching ends, has echoed this, saying that there has been a lack of clarity from the Government regarding plans of action for students.

Students were encouraged to return with the promise of a mix of in-person and online courses, but many found themselves being taught wholly online. This has not only cost them rent, but left many isolated in a new place they have only just moved to, without any form of support system. As we have recently seen in Manchester, with a rent strike and the occupation of Owens Park by students, it is clear that many feel let down. One student, Izzy Smitheman, told the BBC:

“They brought us here for profit rather than our safety”.

Another has said that students feel they were “tricked” back into university in September. Students feel greatly mistreated by the Government: blamed for the rise in covid cases, locked in accommodation in new cities with no support network, and not receiving the teaching they have paid for. The Government’s lack of engagement with these issues is severely damaging.

The lack of clarity, and the difference between what students were led to believe and the reality of their teaching, have hugely affected students’ mental health. Since the beginning of the academic year, a student has died every week from suicide. Let me repeat that horrendous statistic: since September, every week, a student has taken their own life. Every week, parents have been told that their child died alone at their university; every week, friends and families grieve for a life cut short; and still the Government have not addressed these students’ issues. Their petitions voice a “desperate cry for help”, as Georgia Henderson says. The Government have repeatedly failed to plan for the safe learning of students at universities, leaving those universities to navigate a way to deliver high-quality teaching at short notice, often with devastating effects on the mental health of students. The Government need to realise that, without proper planning, it is the student—the young person—who suffers.

Petition 300528 would

“Require universities to reimburse students' tuition fees during strike action”.

The petition argues that if universities were forced to issue students with refunds for missed teaching due to strike action, that might strengthen the case of striking teaching staff. Ultimately, universities should take their teaching staff’s complaints seriously and negotiate with them in good faith. However, far too often, striking staff feel that this is not the approach being taken. In February, during strike action at universities across the country, University and College Union chairperson Jo Grady said:

“We are on the same side in this dispute and we hope students will put pressure on their vice-chancellors”

to send their representatives back to the negotiating table

“with a clear mandate to work seriously to try and resolve the disputes”.

The universities Minister has said that this situation is neither of the universities’ making, nor the Government’s. However, the Government have a duty of care. Just as the most vulnerable are rightly going to receive funding through the winter grant scheme this year, so too should the Government look after their students. The Government have stepped in to provide financial aid for other essential sectors of our society that have experienced financial difficulty due to the pandemic, but have not given any aid to higher education. Petition creator Georgia Henderson has told me that students understand that it is up to universities to lower tuition fees. However,

“as the government was responsible for increasing the cap on said tuition fees, I see it only fair for the government to lower these in the light of Covid.”

Universities are vital to our economy and vital for our country to continue to thrive. We pride ourselves on our educational institutions and on the contributions that our universities make and have made to the world. Surely we ought to make sure that their integrity is maintained, that students feel they are being treated fairly, and that higher education in England is not only rigorous but good value for money.

Currently, if a student wishes to seek reimbursement from the university, they have the right to take up an individual complaint. Many students do not know how the system works, and even if they did, placing the responsibility on the individual is not efficient, reasonable or fair. Many have argued that the current processes set up to deal with complaints are inadequate for the volume of complaints expected as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator received 2,371 complaints in 2019. If even 1% of students in higher education were to complain to their institution and have that passed on to the OIA, that would represent a roughly tenfold increase in the number of complaints it had to deal with. Even if the OIA’s capacity were increased, the exact circumstances in which students should expect to receive a refund or be able to repeat part of their course are not clear, which would mean a vast number of lengthy, time-consuming and confusing cases. If the financial burden of those refunds falls entirely on the universities, it will cripple them and inevitably lead to staff redundancies.

The Petitions Committee produced a report on the impact of coronavirus on university students. One of its recommendations was that the Government put in place a new process to consider complaints that would cover 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. That would at least mean that students who believe themselves to be entitled to a refund would have a clear method of pursuing it.

Universities already face a fall in revenue. If they are to maintain their high-quality staff and facilities, they will not be able to reimburse all students. Therefore, conversations need to be had to ascertain the level of refund that students could reasonably demand based on the teaching they received, how feasible it is for universities to do that and how much the Government should give to support universities and students.

The petitions have made it clear that students feel “forgotten about” and

“cruelly mistreated by the government”,

as Georgia Henderson wrote to me. If, as the Government say, they believe that students should be at the heart of higher education, they need to act on their concerts. If they do not, they run the risk of tarnishing this country’s long-held reputation for excellence in academic institutions.

Esther McVey Portrait Esther McVey (Tatton) (Con)
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16 Nov 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for bringing this important matter to the House. I know that he is also the joint chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on customer service, so he must be appalled by the customer service that students are receiving.

I have been following the matter for almost a year, from the strike action to the first covid-19 lockdown, through the exam situation, the return to university and lockdown again. I have spoken to and supported students on the way, and I have learned a lot about what they are going through.

In fact, I made a Blue Collar Conversations podcast on the issue on 23 May called “Has COVID19 Injected a Degree of Uncertainty into University Education?”. I spoke to a list of students, including Emily Bethell, who spoke on behalf of many and relayed some of the things that had happened. In March, the week before lockdown, she was told that if we went into lockdown, the university could cope—that it could move online, it had a good online portal, they could carry on working and it would be relatively normal. However, that was not the case and it did not work out like that.

Despite those institutions being the height of academia, students watched revision lectures that turned out to be a rehash of those from previous years. As for contact, there used to be one-to-one contact—about 120 hours per term—but in the summer term that went down to just four hours, and there was no reduction in the fees. She did not make a complaint, because she thought that her university was measured on good results, and, “We had been told that our exams would be marked compassionately, which meant that we could all get good results”. Therefore, there was no recourse, no complaint and she would not get a refund. She said that this was not her being cynical; she said that this is what they are all talking about, as students together.

She said, “You know, I don’t feel like a student. This is something I have wanted to do all my life. I have aimed to get to university. I feel more like a commodity, and I don’t feel that others think that my education is paramount. It is to me; that is why I am paying £9,000 to attend university.” She also said, “You know what? What I am receiving now is not what I contracted for. It’s not what I signed up to do. I feel more like a tin of baked beans, just packed high and sold off—only in this instance, they are not being sold off cheap. They are being sold off at a very dear price.” She added, “If I had purchased a car with this many problems, I’d have wanted it to have been fixed or I’d have wanted my money back”.

Then there is Bronwen Kershaw. Again, I spoke to her in March, on the 19th. She was in the library and the only thing that she saw was a little notice there saying that it would be closed from the following day. Bronwen studies history and most of her books are actually in hard physical form. With the library being closed the following day, before the exams that were coming up in a couple of months’ time, she had to quickly get as many physical books as she could. There were not that many there, and all the other students were doing the same thing.

Bronwen had hoped that this process would perhaps set about the modernisation of university—surely the books should be online on JSTOR, or on some sort of online library catalogue. The universities need to modernise. She said what she had was “poor service” from March onwards. She received group emails; nothing was personalised. There was no interaction. She said that it was as if strike action had carried on in that university. One of her lecturers had poor internet connection at home, which meant she did not get any online tutorials because it was not possible. So, she felt abandoned and let down.

She then looked into how she would go about getting a refund, but it is not that easy. Then, 20 weeks ago, via the online platform Student Problems, I was interviewed about how a student gets a refund. Obviously, the contract is between the student and the university, so the student has to make a complaint against the university. Then, they have to exhaust the internal process, and only then can they go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. Their complaint will be balanced against what the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education says should be the standard of education expected. However, some students did not go along that path. I spoke to the host of the Student Problems website, Sam Rostron, and he asked, “Why don’t you think students are following this route? What are their concerns?” I said that many of them had said to me that they feared reprisals. They were only in their first or second year and they thought they might not get the grade that they should, so they felt that they did not want to upset the apple cart and would not pursue that route. They also said that, in a way, covid was a brand new situation, so they wanted to forgive the university in a way—perhaps it was trying its very best. This was also something that they had wanted to do all their life, so lots of students did not pursue any sort of refund.

Since then we have had the summer recess, and months and months have passed. The students went back to university, having been told they could return. The universities welcomed them and the Government said, “You can go back”. They thought that meant the universities would be up to speed, would be covid-compliant and would be able to teach online. However, that has not proved to be the case.

I am speaking now on behalf of parents from my constituency. Joe Egan from Wilmslow’s son was only at Newcastle University for 48 hours before he was told that all his tutorials and lectures would be online. If he had known that beforehand, he would have taken an Open University degree. Shirley Smith from Alderley Edge has a son who is a fresher at the University of Northampton. She told me that he has only been offered online teaching. She also raised concerns about the evacuation-style plan to get students home for Christmas. Bethan Weston from Wilmslow raised concerns about the mixed standard of lectures, among other issues. Her daughter is in accommodation with 23 others. She has not been able to socialise. She is living in a house, but because there are no communal areas, they are all sitting in the halls and on stairways to speak to one another. She is concerned about the debt, the lockdown and the students’ mental health issues. She said it compares to a prison camp. It is unacceptable. How were young students allowed to go back to university when universities did not have the capability to look after their students? Some of them have literally been locked up in student accommodation.

Another example comes from the Birley campus at Manchester Metropolitan University, posted on the Student Problems website. Some 1,700 students were told to self-isolate for 14 days. How was that news broken to them? They went to leave the campus and were told by security guards that they had to go back inside. There were no emails for a couple of hours. They did not know what was going on. They got no refund for their rent. They all said it was more like Her Majesty’s prison. They were then labelled as super-spreaders and looked down on by the general public. They said that was unfair. They had been told that they could go to university. What else were they to do?

On 11 November, the SAFER—Student Action for a Fair and Educated Response—report came out. It said that our universities have prioritised profit over student welfare, and that the cost of an online honours degree at the Open University would be over £9,000 cheaper at the end of three years. It said there is a lack of adequate support in the halls, of regular testing and even of food. We are talking about vulnerable 18 and 19-year-olds for whom this may be the first time they have moved away from home, and this is how they are being treated.

My question to the Minister come from students in my constituency, parents and SAFER. The university has claimed tuition fees are a Government issue; the Government are saying they are a university issue; people are asking the Government to clarify who is responsible. If both university and Government are responsible, how and when will the issue be resolved? If it is a university issue, what pressure can Government bring to bear on the universities to get this sorted? What meetings are Government Ministers having with university students, so that they can explain their concerns? Can we have a simpler refund process? Finally, can there be an automatic refund for those who were locked down? Universities and Government must do the right thing by our young people and their families.

Break in Debate

Michelle Donelan Portrait The Minister for Universities (Michelle Donelan)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans)—is that right?

Chris Evans Portrait Chris Evans
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16 Nov 2020, 7:03 p.m.

It is the most difficult one to pronounce.

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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16 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to a number of the points that he and other hon. Members have made.

I acknowledge the significant impact that covid-19 has had on staff, students and higher education providers. The Government do not for one minute underestimate that. This pandemic has been hard for all of us, but in so many ways young people have been disproportionately impacted. Students have been left facing a number of challenges. I am hugely grateful for the resilience, innovation and dedication shown by staff and students over the past nine months. The constant uncertainty has made things worse, but the improvements in mass testing and constant scientific advances, including a potential vaccine, offer a glimmer of hope.

We have heard some compelling speeches today focusing on the case for a tuition fee refund. I repeat that the Government get how hard the ramifications of covid have been. In fact, they have been at the forefront of my mind throughout. Since March, therefore, I have emphasised the importance of keeping universities open during the pandemic, as I reiterated in my recent letter to higher education providers. We simply cannot ask young people to put their education and lives on hold indefinitely. The human cost of lost opportunity and damaged social mobility would be immense. The Government were elected on a manifesto to level up; curtailing the ambitions and dreams of our young is not the way to achieve that.

We listened to the scientific advice, which informed our higher education guidance at every stage, including the return to university. The hon. Member for Islwyn and many other hon. Members have called for a blanket tuition fee refund, but it should be noted that the Government do not set the minimum level of tuition fees. We set the maximum, and we have been very clear that if higher education providers want to continue to charge the maximum, they must ensure that the quality, quantity and accessibility of tuition is maintained. We have been working closely with the Office for Students to ensure that, and we will continue to do so.

We have heard accounts of students who feel that the quality of their education has declined. My message to them is that there is a system in place that can help. First, a student should pursue the official complaints procedure at their university. If they remain unsatisfied, they should go to the OIA. That can lead to some form of tuition fee refund. Without the first stage, institutions would not have the opportunity for early resolution of complaints with students, so it is important.

I hear the concern, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), that students may be reluctant to come forward. I reassure all students, however, that the OIA’s good practice framework is clear that there must be appropriate levels of confidentiality without disadvantage and that providers should make that clear to all students.

OIA cases will normally be completed within 90 days, and the process is designed to make it simple and easy for students. The form is online. It asks for basic information and a summary of the complaint. The OIA requires the provider rather than the student to send it all the information. Some hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students.

Break in Debate

Michelle Donelan Portrait Michelle Donelan
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16 Nov 2020, 12:06 a.m.

You will correct me if I am wrong, Sir David, but I believe that question is slightly out of scope for a petition on higher education. In relation to higher education, my understanding is that the care leavers who have needed those devices have received them. If any hon. Member knows of cases to the contrary, I would be more than happy to pick that matter up.

I agree with many of the points that have been made about the crucial role that universities play in social mobility, including the point, made by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), about the economic recovery. Universities will be vital in that mission as we progress.

This has been an unprecedented year, so it is really important to recognise the tireless work of university lecturers, administrators and support staff over the past few months, and how students have adapted. However, I will make one message clear today: students have not been forgotten. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that universities uphold their obligations under consumer law. We must ensure that students and staff are safe and supported, and that students receive the high quality of education that they rightly expect.

Chris Evans Portrait Chris Evans
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16 Nov 2020, 12:01 a.m.

Sir David, you have chaired many debates over the years, including many I have spoken in, so you will know that my constituency has been referred to as “Iswine” and “Islin”. Indeed, in a debate on diabetes that you chaired—it was a number of years ago, so I do not know whether you remember it—I was referred to as the hon. Member for insulin. [Laughter.] I make that point just to apologise to some of the petitioners, because I tripped over their names and hope they will forgive me. They were making really important points.

This has been a very passionate debate. We have heard contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), and the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey). We had a fantastic summing-up speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), as well as the response from the Minister.

The wonderful thing about petitions debates is that we know we are debating something of central importance to people. The various petitions we have discussed today received nearly 1 million signatures, which proves how deeply parents, staff and, most crucially, students are concerned about these various issues.

Personally, although I heard what the Minister said, I am still concerned about the number of complaints that have come through, and I am really worried that the system will positively groan under the weight of the number of complaints that are bound to come. As I said in my speech, if complaints to the OIA go up by just 1%, that would be a tenfold increase. That would be a real problem, so I hope that the Government will understand it and develop policies to address it.

Ultimately, however, the problem we have is that universities have marketed themselves over the years with an idealistic view of student life. Because of covid-19, which is nobody’s fault, such an idealistic view can no longer be achieved. If people hope for the type of student experiences that I enjoyed, and that I think everybody in this room enjoyed, that is not going to happen. However, what people do expect and should receive is the top-quality education that this country is renowned for throughout the world. There should be no excuse about that. When people sign up for university, they are making a massive financial commitment, and the Government should step up to that as well.

Members made many other points tonight, but I will focus on the point that my friend the right hon. Member for Tatton made about the Open University. The way things are, if people are just going to enrol and end up doing only online courses, they might as well stay with the Open University. That will be a real challenge for universities in the coming years. It will cause a fall in revenue and the Government will have to revisit some of the issues that we have raised today.

I will end by thanking everybody who has taken part in what has been a fantastic, measured and, at times, impassioned debate. I thank you all on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Finally, may I thank you, Sir David, for your measured and fair chairmanship of the debate?

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.

Sitting adjourned.