Following our previous blogs on this topic, we have prepared an update on the current position for higher education institutions.
At the time of writing, a second Parliamentary Petition seeking a partial refund of university tuition fees for the academic year 2020/21 has achieved over 208,000 signatures and will be debated by Parliament on 16 November 2020. It argues that students should not have to pay full tuition fees because:
- online lectures are of lower quality that in-person lectures
- they are missing the wider student experience due to the impact of coronavirus (COVID-19)
To date, the Government's position remains that courses should be high-quality and that tuition fee refunds are an issue for higher education providers to resolve as autonomous institutions.
Meanwhile, the OfS has stated that universities must not rule out refunds as a matter of course but should look at them on a case by case basis. Examples are emerging, that are well known within the higher education sector, of institutions offering rent free periods and shopping vouchers when accommodation was locked down at the start of term. This falls short of tuition fee refunds and it remains to be seen how that will play out and where the money for any refunds will come from.
Interestingly, guidance to students from the OIA focuses on academic issues and quality of communication from providers as reasons that may be considered when evaluating claims for refunds brought by students. Not mentioned are wider "student experience" issues. The OIA is currently advising students that the pandemic has changed teaching methods and university life but if "your provider has offered you different but broadly equivalent teaching and assessment opportunities in a way that you could access, it is not likely that you will get a fee refund for that." It does, however, explain that when assessing claims and complaints from students it will consider:
- the reasonableness of the provider's actions in all the circumstances including public health restrictions, and guidance available to providers at the time
- whether the provider communicated effectively with students (both generally and in response to individual complaints) about what was happening and what it was doing in respect of complaints and changes on campus or to teaching etc
- what support providers offer students to access online courses, and how quickly
- the impact on particular courses, expected learning outcomes and assessments
- what students were promised in prospectuses.
It is not clear how a claim for a refund that went before the OIA or Court would be determined or whether changes to the "student experience" beyond academic aspects would have much bearing on any decision or refund awarded. It is highly likely to be case dependent. The terms of the higher education provider's contract with students as well as any promises or representations made to students of what they could expect compared to what they are actually receiving will usually be relevant to establishing whether there has been any breach of contract.
We will continue to monitor the situation and to provide updates as developments arise.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.