For many students in British universities, life under “lockdown” continues with remote teaching and learning. We are now used to lectures being delivered from studies or spare bedrooms, and seminars conducted over Skype or Zoom. In one way or another, all of us have had to rapidly adapt to new and innovative ways of being taught and assessed. Who could have expected that the final months of the academic year would be spent away from campus, with no certain idea of when we shall return?
In some quarters, there has been hope that life will return to normal by the summer, and that the regular busy rhythm of university life will resume in September. However, this idea has been punctured by an announcement from Cardiff University’s Vice Chancellor. There is now a scandalous suggestion that students will continue their studies online well into the next academic year – all whist full tuition fees continue to be charged. If students had wanted an online degree, they could have obtained one from Open University where it is a third of the price.
With the prospect of a further eighteen months until campuses are fully operational students must send out a clear message to universities that charging £9000 in fees is abhorrent and unacceptable.
There are distinct differences between online and face to face learning- and whilst recorded lectures and discussion boards are an adequate replacement in these unprecedented times, it is outrageous to demand the same fees for an inferior service.
The controversial introduction of tuition fees occurred under a Labour administration. However, it is a policy that some conservatives might be inclined to agree with. Jacob Rees-Mogg argued, when asked about fees at Queen Mary University, that individuals make a free choice to come to university, and that somebody must pay for the privilege of the education received. This is entirely true. Students who are able to find well paid jobs after university should be expected to pay for the education that has facilitated their employment.
But in the past year, students have had a rough ride. Five weeks of industrial action resulted in an enormous loss of contact time- whilst students were being used as pawns by unions in their negotiations with the government. So much time has been lost it may mean final-year students will be unable to graduate. And now, a global pandemic has further disrupted studies; students are left short-changed once again.
It is no secret that universities across Britain operate as large businesses, and to a greater or lesser extent regard their students as consumers. This is evident in the emphasis on the student experience that ranges from wanting to provide comfortable accommodation, to fun club nights, to quality teaching and lecture provision.
Universities will eloquently make the case for why expensive tuition fees are an absolutely necessary contribution to their finances, and each institution ought to reflect that reality. But how justified is it to continue to ask students to pay for educational services and an experience they are not receiving? Is it right to continue to charge students for learning at home – in an environment that might not be conducive to study or research, and that might have profound negative impacts on performance?
Students arrive at university prepared to make a significant financial investment in their future. They certainly did not enroll to be sent home early and pay full price for only a fraction of what they deserve.