The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt in all areas of social life. And for the UK’s student population, the last two years have seen unprecedented disruption to their studies. So much so, in fact, that students in Northern Ireland received a £500 reimbursement from the Stormont Executive. But students in England, Wales, and Scotland have had no such compensation – and have continued to pay full price for tuition despite disruptions that quite clearly reduce the value of their education.
This includes the shift to online learning, which many believe is less valuable (and less costly to produce) than in-person teaching. But it also includes a general lack of access to university facilities. Tuition fees not only pay for lectures from expert academics, but supposedly buy access to study spaces, libraries, and academic resources that exist to support students’ learning. The pandemic, however, saw access to many such resources limited if not restricted entirely, with many campuses closing to students for months.
Students have even had to pay rent on accommodation they cannot use. When travel was restricted, many students found themselves locked down in family homes – unable to travel to their university accommodation without risking the kind of fines recently doled out in Downing Street. And Save the Student, a campaign group, estimates that students were made to fork out nearly £1 billion for accommodation they were unable to use during the 2020-21 academic year.
In contrast, Russell Group universities were given £115 million in taxpayer funded furlough cash throughout the pandemic. And despite lockdowns and health concerns, Russell Group universities have experienced the biggest increase in student numbers for more than ten years. Partly as a result, elite universities have added more than £2 billion to their coffers during the pandemic. These figures have triggered accusations that top universities “profiteered” from students by maintaining tuition fees of £9,250, even though most courses adopted some form of remote learning and subsidised costs at the taxpayers’ expense. Given this context, the onset of the pandemic saw some determined calls for refunds to be paid to the student population. And many made the argument that to pay the same fee for a clearly diminished product is not only nonsensical, but unjust.
This is an opinion shared at least by the 270,000 people who signed a 2020 petition asking the government to consider financial compensation for university students. But parliament was unmoved. “If students are unhappy,” the government responded, they should “complain to their provider.” Since then, calls for refunds and discounts have become more muted. But disruption to studies has not. At the time of writing, this year has already seen staff at 68 universities strike in response to pension cuts which will see 35% slashed from their guaranteed retirement income. This industrial action impacted well over a million students, and such disruption has been going on for years. In 2018, university lecturers launched the longest strike in the history of UK higher education. 575,000 teaching hours were lost to industrial action. And many of us will remember missing almost a whole semester’s worth of lecturers – causing confusion and stress around examinable content, assessment submissions, and more.
These are massive and ongoing disruptions. But outrage should not be misunderstood as a lack of solidarity with striking lecturers. And many are happy to use students to pressure university staff into accepting poorer working conditions. Michelle Donelan, the Minister for Higher and Further Education, called it “deeply irresponsible for unions to be calling for strikes now, after students have already missed so much face-to-face teaching from their universities.”
This framing portrays staff and students as though they share conflicting interests – that it is staff who are responsible for conning students out of their money. But, both groups are faced with problems orchestrated by the same obscenely rich institutions – universities. The higher education industry boasts a total income of more than £40b. And on average, vice-chancellors receive a healthy £269k salary per year. In contrast, students and graduates are also facing a squeeze on their finances courtesy of the UK government, with Rishi Sunak announcing changes to student loan repayments that will see mid-to-low earners repaying about £11,600 more of their debt across their lifetime. And thanks to the increase in national insurance, graduates earning £30,000 will soon face a marginal tax rate of 49.8%.
There is no doubt that universities can afford to reduce tuition fees in lieu of such disruption – let alone pay their employees a fair wage and pension. And in the face of an escalating cost of living crisis, the reluctance to do so not only represents a gross level of inequality amongst university staff, but a willingness to exploit students in the pursuit of profit.
In fact, by demanding compensation for disruption to our studies, students will only help lecturers receive the wages and pensions they deserve. Industrial action works on the logic that, by withholding their labour, workers can incur a financial cost on their employers – and use this leverage to demand improvements to their working conditions. But this idea simply does not apply to higher education, dominated as it is by universities who happily collect revenue from students who continue to pay them for the provision of literally no product.
At the end of the day, students have nothing to lose but their debts. They have a refund to win.