Esther McVeyMain Page: Esther McVey (Conservative - Tatton)
Department Debates - View all Esther McVey's debates with the Department for Education
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.
They say that a student’s time at university will be the best years of their life, but for thousands of students across the UK at the moment, it is a nightmare. Those of us who enjoyed our time at university are probably thinking that we are lucky that we are not them. They are locked up in their halls of residence, attending freshers events over Zoom and running the risk of contracting the virus during face-to-face teaching.
This year’s first-year university students already had to put up the hellish scandal of A-level results day and now they must contend with the shambles that is this Government’s advice to universities on covid-19. While the pandemic is no one’s fault, the way we deal with it must be. Tuition fees have been a controversial topic of debate over the past couple of decades—I was against them then and am against them now. Although it has been stated time and again, it cannot be said enough that education should be a right and not a privilege. We should not charge for it. Ironically, the Cabinet Ministers who were the driving force behind tripling tuition fees some years ago probably went to university free of charge and at the expense of the taxpayer. They have effectively pulled up the drawbridge behind them.
The commercialisation of higher education is a big shame for this country. Lumbering 21-year-olds with £50,000-worth of debt is absolutely disgraceful. When we look at other countries across the world we see thriving, high-income countries investing in their higher education while we push the cost on to students and their families. We will hear again, “It’s fine. You won’t have to repay it until you start earning £26,000-plus a year,” but the psychological toll that that massive amount of debt leaves on an individual is not mentioned. We all know that pay now or pay later, debt is still debt, and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds will always take longer to pay it back and will suffer harsher consequences.
At the moment, university students are paying £9,250 a year to attend university, or, as some of them say, £9,250 to effectively live in prison-like conditions. Students in Manchester have dubbed their university “Her Majesty’s Prison, Manchester University” because fences have been put up to keep them in. Students are paying to stay in halls while watching their lectures online over Zoom and many other platforms. International students from Europe have been asked to come to this country, but, having left their countries, they are attending their lectures online.
I studied biomedical sciences for my first degree, and I think of all the biomedical scientists at the moment who are in their first year of university and probably struggling to attend lectures online. I think about how they get on without all the laboratory work that they have to do. They are simply not getting the education that they need for that course, and I expect that that is the case for many courses. That is all off the back of shoddy advice that called for face-to-face teaching to resume, despite everyone saying that it was a terrible idea. As a result, approximately 2,600 university students and staff have contracted the virus, and many more have had to self-isolate.
The decision to return to face-to-face teaching was dangerous, as has been said by the University and College Union and unions at Manchester, Leeds and elsewhere. They have explicitly stated that it has put staff and students in harm’s way. It is ridiculous to tell students to return to face-to-face teaching, only for them to get to university to find that they are sitting in front of their laptops in their halls of residence. After sending students back to live in communal halls, what happened next was inevitable: a spike in coronavirus cases in university cities. Once again, that was entirely avoidable if we had planned properly for the second wave. It is a scandal that students are literally being made to pay for this.
It is ludicrous to expect students to continue paying extortionate tuition fees when they are not receiving a full service. With any other service, if a customer was dissatisfied or something prevented them from receiving a service to the advertised standard, it would be reasonable for them to demand a refund, so why is it any different for students? We cannot treat university education as a commodity in one respect and not in others. It is either a market commodity, in which case a refund can be requested for a poor service, or it is not, in which case it should be free.
Charging individuals overall to pursue higher education is wrong at the most basic level, but to continue to charge them now is profoundly wrong. It is simply outrageous. The Government must ultimately consider cancelling tuition fees entirely, but in the meantime they should consider refunding the cost of tuition for the entire time that students’ university experience is impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Break in Debate
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.
The whole purpose of having that first stage is for the university to have a chance to deal with the complaint, as there might be opportunities to do so that do not include refunds. I was trying to express the fact that, in the formal process with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, there are protections for students against any potential backlash that might be feared from going against the university. The degree of anonymity is hindered—if it is completely anonymous, it is impossible to pursue a complete complaints process—but there are protections for students.
As I was saying, hon. Members have argued that the policy places too much on the shoulders of students and that we should instead adopt Government finance-backed refunds. I wholeheartedly dispute the suggestion that all students are being let down. Tuition does look different, because we are in the midst of a global pandemic, but different does not have to mean inferior.
Universities have invested heavily in innovative and dynamic learning and have utilised technology. I have seen many examples of interactive lessons that staff have worked tirelessly, hour after hour, to produce. In fact, a recent survey by Unite showed that 81% of students were happy that they did not defer, and four in five agreed that, although it is not how they expected their first university year to be, they valued their time there.
I am not for one moment suggesting that there have not been some institutions, or some faculties within them, that may not have given students the learning they deserve, as we have heard in accounts today. For those students, the process is in place; that is exactly why it was set up. The majority of students, however, have been supported by hard-working staff, who have invested hour after hour to support students in their learning. There has been an enormous effort made throughout the higher education sector to maintain the high quality expected by this Government. In fact, when done well, online learning takes many more hours to produce and costs more, as the fixed costs—including labour—remain the same and are combined with additional technology costs.
Yes, universities are autonomous institutions, but as a Government, we have a responsibility to the millions of students studying across the country to ensure that their education can continue and that it continues in a way that meets the high quality bar that we usually expect, and that they expect.
The findings of the Petitions Committee inquiry were clear that although students who are entitled to a refund should be able to access information about how to claim, a wide-scale refund should not be the way forward, and we agree. A range of guidance for students and providers already exists—from the OFS, the Competition and Markets Authority, the OIA and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education—and we have been working to highlight and co-ordinate that advice even more for students. Universities must anyway adhere to consumer law and make their complaints process, and the OIA’s process, clear to students. The NUS has promoted this process during the pandemic, as have I, especially on student-facing media.
As the Petitions Committee recommended, we have established a working group that includes the NUS, the OFS, Universities UK, the OIA and the CMA. The OFS is working on a comms campaign, and a new page is now on its website that pulls together existing guidance on consumer issues. The OIA is consulting on new arrangements for dealing with complaints from groups of students, to speed up the process and ensure that those students who have a degree of commonality can be brought together in one complaint. I am also working on additional ways to further promote the rights of students and the processes they should follow, including working with Martin Lewis and his Money Saving Expert team.
Further to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, I want every student to know that they do have consumer rights. The CMA produced guidance on this issue earlier in the year and, for higher education providers, it is clear: universities should have been clear before the start of the academic year about what students could expect in these extraordinary circumstances. If students feel they have not got what they expected, they should follow the process. As outlined by the CMA, each student has a contractual agreement, and that agreement will differ per institution, which is another reason why a blanket system of refunds would not necessarily work.
Once again, let me be clear: it is not acceptable for students to receive anything less than the high-quality education they expect from our world-leading sector. A change in the mode of delivery to online or blended learning should not mean that quality declines. This is not a case of “pay the same and get less”; this is about providers changing their mode of delivery in an unprecedented situation to prioritise public health.
Providers will be best placed to be informed about decisions regarding the proportions of online and in-person learning, working with their local Public Health England teams. There are so many examples of innovative providers and the work they have done. I will highlight just a few. The University of Leeds utilised virtual classroom technologies, enabling students in Leeds and those studying remotely to engage together, and this has been seen in many universities. The University of Northampton used webinar software to successfully replicate a mock courtroom scenario, and the University of Sheffield’s faculty of engineering developed an approach to remote teaching of practical elements, shared with the sector. Some universities, such as Cambridge, have sent science, technology, engineering and mathematics students items of lab equipment to work with at home, and there are many, many more examples.
The OFS has stipulated that quality must be maintained and that the conditions of registration must continue to be met. It is directly engaging with those providers that have moved their provision online due to the coronavirus restrictions and is assessing material to check that the quality and quantity of provision are maintained and that it is accessible. Students can raise their concerns directly with the OFS.
However, tuition fees do cover much more than simply teaching: they include the support services that universities offer, such as mental health and wellbeing, as well as the provision of study spaces, library resources and much more. It is clear that these important services must be maintained, especially when students are isolating, in regards to wellbeing, mental health and communications. We as a Government have been very clear about that.
To answer the question asked directly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton regarding my engagement with students, which was also posed by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), I have regularly engaged with the NUS. I have engaged with the OFS student panel and with students who are present for the various visits I make on a regular basis, particularly the working groups of care leavers who are students. I have also done a magnitude of student-facing media, answering questions in online forums. I believe that is essential, because I should be speaking to students and the sector, detailing our policy and responding to their queries.
Rather than focusing on wide-scale refunds that in reality would make little difference to the money in students’ pockets—and let us not forget that more than 50% of students never pay back their full student debt—the Government are focusing on the outcomes of the higher education experience. We are focusing on ensuring that the courses lead to qualifications, and working hard so that students are supported and safe. Drawing on the expertise of the higher education taskforce that I set up, we have been providing robust public health advice and guidance to universities, so I dispute the claim made earlier in the debate that the Government have not given clarity to universities.
From the start of the pandemic my priority has been to protect student mental health and wellbeing, and we have asked providers to prioritise that. We have worked closely with the Office for Students to create the Student Space to address the additional mental health challenges that covid presents. That is a £3 million project, to be delivered with Student Minds, and it has recently been extended. That is on top of wider Government support that includes £9 million for charities. We monitor it all the time. My heart goes out to all the families who have experienced student suicide in the past few months, and to the friends and all the people who knew those students. It is an awful tragedy, and no words can give an account of how I, or other hon. Members here today, feel about it.
The hon. Members for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle raised the issue of student hardship and the £256 million fund. We have clarified that providers can use that money for the entire academic year. It is for student hardship—for digital devices, for mental health support—so it is right that we keep referring to it. We were quite up front at the beginning about how it could be utilised. Before the beginning of the academic year—before August—we also outlined that £23 million per month could be utilised. I am afraid I shall continue to use that figure, because it was for the entire academic year. Student hardship is something that we continue to monitor, and each university normally has its own hardship pots as well. The Department has also allocated £195 million for technology devices for educational settings, for which care leavers at higher education providers qualify.