How has the continued coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic changed the higher education landscape when considering student matters such as tuition fees, unconditional offers, and grades?
Reimbursement of Fees
A petition calling for the reimbursement of tuition fees for all students whose studies were disrupted first by strike action and then by the coronavirus pandemic has failed to achieve its objective. Despite gaining more than 345,000 signatures (245,000 more than is required for Parliament to consider the issue for debate), students at British universities have been told they should not expect an automatic tuition fee refund.
When giving evidence on 11 June, Michelle Donelan MP, Minister for Universities, echoed the Government's 5 June response by arguing that it would be inappropriate for the state to intervene because universities are autonomous organisations which set their own fees and are responsible for ensuring that the courses they deliver are fit for purpose. Students who believe they are entitled to redress because the educational service they received was substandard should therefore take the matter up with their own provider directly before involving the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if necessary.
The House of Commons Petitions Committee published its report on the impact of COVID-19 on university students on 13 July, calling on the Government to take a number of steps:
- provide guidance on how students can claim refunds or repeat parts of their courses
- establish an easier system for students to seek a refund if they believe they have not received the education to which they are entitled
- provide financial support for students wishing to extend their education
- consider providing emergency funds to universities to support them in refunding eligible students
The Committee is now calling on the Government to provide a revised response which addresses the request in the petition more directly. This will be published on the Parliament website in due course.
One of the earliest regulatory responses to the pandemic by the OfS was to make it unlawful for institutions to convert conditional offers for the 2020/21 academic year into unconditional ones. The justification for this was that it had the potential to distort student choice at a time of uncertainty and may lead to students committing themselves to courses that do not serve their best interests.
On 23 July, the OfS published the findings of an updated analysis indicating that young people who accept unconditional offers before sitting their A-levels are more likely to drop out before commencing their second year of undergraduate study. This is consistent with a previous UCAS study which found that during the 2019 cycle, applicants with an unconditional offer were more likely to miss their predicted A-level grades by three or more grades.
Typically, algorithms are used by HE providers to award final degree classifications once student work has been assessed, marked and moderated. However, variation across the sector in how these algorithms are designed has called into question consistency, transparency and reliability and fuelled concerns about grade inflation. In response to these issues, Universities UK and Guild HE published six new guiding principles and associated recommendations for higher education providers when deciding their students' final degree classifications. In summary, it is stated that in order to be effective an algorithm must:
- provide an appropriate and reliable summary of a student's performance reflecting the design, delivery and structure of the degree programme
- fairly reflect student performance without unduly over-emphasising particular aspects
- protect academic standards by adhering to current conventions and national reference points
- normally be reviewed every five years
- be designed and reviewed in a way that is mindful of the impact of different calculation approaches on different groups of students
- be communicated and explained clearly to students in terms of how it works and why
These principles should also be considered by providers applying for degree awarding powers, as they will need to show how they intend to classify their academic awards and provide evidence of the use of external reference points.
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