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On the 10th of August Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, stated in an interview with Sky News that he expects universities to resume in-person teaching from the autumn onwards. After months of ums and ahs, Williamson makes his opinion quite apparent, announcing that:
“Our guidance is clear, our direction is clear and we do expect all universities, unless there’s unprecedented reasons, to be moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons, lectures, face to face”.
He then went on to express that:
“Universities have got to sort of stand up their offer to their own students. I think they have the flexibility and the ability to deliver face-to-face lectures, and I expect them to be delivering face-to-face lectures.”
Then when asked about tuition fee refunds for students who were not given in-person teaching, Williamson interjected that:
“Universities have got to stand up their offers to their students, but we have got the Office for Students, which is targeting universities which have low-quality courses which aren’t doing enough, and we will give the OfS all the power, all the backing, in order to pursue those universities that aren’t delivering enough for students that are paying their fees… I think if universities are not delivering, not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees.”
You don’t have to have been living under a rock for the last two years to see what an insult this is. Firstly, it doesn’t make sense, ‘we don’t deal with refunds so I can’t answer but, I’ll answer anyway’ and now, he thinks that if universities aren’t delivering what students expect then students shouldn’t be charged? Where was that mindset before (I don’t recall anyone ever talking about what students expect from universities) when our university experience practically ended on a random Tuesday afternoon in March 2020? And even before that, when students contended with weeks of strikes.
Of course, tuition fees don’t just pay for teaching, a point stressed by the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, last November in a parliamentary debate on a tuition fee refund petition that received almost 300,000 signatures. She claimed that ‘other services’ were still operating during the pandemic but, if the last year and a half has shown us anything, these “other services” are about as easy to access as therapy on the NHS. It’s the classic line of the pandemic, like Lancaster University claiming to students in emails, and more recently in a promotional video to freshers, that they “kept the campus open throughout the pandemic”. I don’t know what their definition of open is but, in this case it seems to mean you can wander around the closed, empty, forlorn campus buildings, maybe you can spot a stray duck by the pond or pretend you’re standing in the Gregg’s queue in the once bustling Alex square. The campus was so barren that Norman the Library Tree, the pride of Lancaster University, died so good try but not quite the university experience I thought tuition fees were supposed to be paying for.
But of course, it’s only now the government claims to care about what students expect. If they’d told us last summer that universities should give refunds to students who felt they didn’t get what they expected from the university, then the sector really would be in a dire financial situation.
Nevertheless, after all the talk and argument about refunds over the past year, the facts remain the same. Before the pandemic we were told that watching lectures online was no substitute for in-person teaching but, during the pandemic we were told that online teaching would give exactly the same ‘world standard’ education. That, of course, you can be taught a degree over the internet with the same quality of teaching (with the addition of the suddenly easy to provide pdf slides). But now, as the country moves to a post-pandemic mindset, the government is saying, once again, that online teaching is not, in fact, a high enough standard of teaching and merits a refund of tuition fees. It’s almost like they make it up as they go along.