Studying at a university in the UK will set you back around £9,250 a year – and up to £39,475 for International students. These tuition fees don’t factor in other costs, like accommodation, living, travel, and studying materials.
So it’s no surprise that, during the coronavirus pandemic, students haven’t been best pleased with how much they’re paying, considering many have switched to online teaching. Lectures have gone digital, and many hands-on practical components of people’s courses have been paused during lockdown.
Anna Jones, 20, a Cardiff university student, says it’s been even trickier for those who aren’t able to work part-time. “Most students live off their loans, but many need jobs on top to keep themselves going,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Coronavirus has meant part-time work in pubs, cafés, shops and restaurants where students usually work are non-existent because they’re all closed, leaving students jobless and hopeless.”
On top of her studies Jones is a self-employed nail technician, but the studio where she works has been closed. “We can’t go to work, can’t go to university, or even go to the student’s union for a drink to meet new friends, but we’re still expected to pay rent and full whack on tuition fees. Surely, this isn’t fair?”
More than half a million people signed a petition to call for a reduction in tuition fees to £3,000 a year. But a spokesperson responded that the government “is not considering a reduction in maximum fee levels to £3,000”.
So, is it possible to claim back any money from the past year?
In 2020, it was announced students could be awarded financial compensation for the lost teaching time and the University and College Union (UCU) strikes, as well as if they feel like they’re not receiving the quality teaching they expected. And recently, it was revealed one university was ordered to pay a student £5,000 in compensation for lost teaching time during England’s first lockdown.
If you, or your child, falls into any of the criteria above, you may be entitled to compensation. Here’s what you need to know.
How do I complain and claim compensation?
The first step is to contact your institution, a tutor, or a student representative body to voice your concerns and questions. The sooner the better, so that they have time to look into your complaint, which can take up to a few weeks.
Most universities will publish complaint procedures on their websites in sections about “regulations” or “procedures”. If you and a group of students complain together about the same thing, you may get a response quicker.
If you haven’t heard back after a few weeks, remind them you’re waiting for a response. If there’s still nothing, get in touch with The Office of the Independent (OIA) who can step in to help. Read through OIA’s FAQs to see if the information, support, and advice applies to you.
In some cases, your university will reply and not uphold the complaint. It should send you a “Completion of Procedures letter”, says the OIA, when it’s made its final decision. Once you have this letter, you can complain to the OIA. You need to fill in their form, and send them a copy of the letter. Complaints must be filed within a year and it’s advised to do this as soon as possible.
“I’m in the process of applying for compensation,” says a law student from Goldsmiths University, who wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s a slow and painful process, but so many other fellow students have found this situation highly stressful. I’m fed up with how my university experience has been delivered. This is not what I paid for at all – can you blame students like us?”
Felicity Mitchell, independent adjudicator from the OIA, says: “Where possible we try to reach a settlement and we are pleased that in many cases providers and students have been very open to this.”
What can I complain about?
It might seem obvious, but know the specifics of what you’re complaining about and have a clear, concise idea of your concerns. It’s worth narrowing down your complaint to brief points and use evidence to back up your claim.
Some of the most common reasons for legitimate and successful complaints the OIA has received include accommodation where students aren’t able to live due to coronavirus restrictions, disruption caused by the pandemic, and missing practical experiences that play an important part in university courses.
One MA international student had a significant practical element part of their course. Whilst the theory components of the course were delivered online the practical side could not be delivered, the university agreed to waive the final installment of the student’s tuition fees.
You can view case summaries of people who have complained and whether they’ve been awarded compensation, to see if their experience matches yours.
“Some students have complained to us about the cumulative effect of disruption caused by industrial action and the pandemic,” OIA said in their latest statement. “In those cases we have considered whether the provider did enough to make sure that the student was not academically disadvantaged by the disruption and could meet their learning outcomes, and whether the provider delivered something broadly equivalent to its usual arrangements.”
What criteria does the university have to meet in order for me to claim compensation?
Compensation and refund policies differ from university to university, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with their terms and conditions. Using London Southbank University’s guidelines as an example, you may be entitled to compensation in cases where:
The university has failed to ensure you have met the learning outcomes of your programme of study.
The failure of the university to effectively minimise the distress and inconvenience caused.
The university not making an obligation to take sufficient steps to make up for students’ missed learning opportunities.
In their FAQs, on the topic of tuition fees, the OIA states: “If your provider has offered you different but broadly equivalent teaching opportunities in a way that you could access, it is not likely that you will get a fee refund for that.
“Your provider may do several things to try to ensure you are not disadvantaged because of the pandemic. They may be able to offer a different way to deliver the content from in-person teaching. Providers are also likely to take the pandemic into account when deciding how to carry out assessments. Providers may be able to rearrange some elements of learning, so that, for example, opportunities for in-person laboratory work that have been lost during 2020 can be put in place in 2021 or subsequently.
“You might not be entitled to a financial remedy if the provider has been able to take steps to put things right another way.”
What do I want as an outcome?
If you’re serious about going ahead with a complaint, ask yourself: what do I actually want to get out of this process and what am I seeking? An apology for the distress? Tuition fee discount? Cash settlement?
It’s important to consider this, as the process could turn out to be quite time-consuming. Put together some clear demands that you believe would compensate you fairly and be reasonable and justifiable – if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Remember, even if you do go through with it there are no guarantees of the final outcome that could swing in your way, so be prepared for that.
In a statement, Universities UK (UUK) said: “Universities have acknowledged the challenges caused by the pandemic, including the impact on those studying practical and practice-based subjects, and have continued to make extraordinary efforts to ensure no student has to put their education on hold.”
The higher education representative group has spoken to the government on how they can best work with universities to support this year’s graduates as they enter a challenging labour market.
“Universities are developing plans to support students to have the fullest possible experience when they return,” a spokesperson explains. “All universities are committed to providing a high quality and engaging educational experience for their students, while prioritising their physical and mental wellbeing, and have invested heavily in Covid-19 safety measures, enhanced digital learning platforms, and additional learning and wellbeing support.”