FOR many university students, life under lockdown continues with remote teaching and learning. We have all had to adapt rapidly to new and innovative ways of being taught and assessed. We are now used to lectures being delivered from studies or spare bedrooms, and seminars conducted over Skype or Zoom. 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 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 – while full tuition fees continue to be charged. If students had wanted an online degree, they could have signed up with the Open University at a third of the price.
With the prospect of a further 18 months until campuses are fully operational, students must send out a clear message to universities that charging £9,000 a year in fees is abhorrent and unacceptable. There are distinct differences between online and face-to-face learning, and while recorded lectures and discussion boards are an adequate replacement in these unprecedented times, it is outrageous to demand fees for a service that is not being delivered.
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 that individuals make a free choice to go to university, and that somebody has to pay for the privilege of the education received. This is 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 by teaching staff and lecturers witnessed an enormous loss of contact time, so much so that final year students may be unable to graduate, and students have been used as pawns by unions in their negotiations with the government. Now a global pandemic has further disrupted studies.
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 includes providing comfortable accommodation, fun club nights and quality teaching and lecture provision. Universities will eloquently make the case that high tuition fees are an absolutely necessary contribution to their finances. But how justified is it 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 do not enrol to be sent home early and pay full price for only a fraction of what they have been promised.