Today’s big question

When will students be allowed back to university - and are they owed refunds?

Government facing questions about whether tuition and accommodation fees will be repaid

Students at the University of St Andrews have been told not to return to campus until September - fuelling fears that other institutions are planning similar announcements as the Covid pandemic continues.

In the letter sent to St Andrews students, “the university said that courses will remain online for the rest of this semester, running until the end of May, when the academic year ends for most students”, news site Reaction reports.

The decision will prompt “plenty of questions” for Downing Street and the Department for Education (DfE) about whether students at other universities “can expect the same, and whether they’ll be getting refunds” on tuition and accommodation fees, says Politico’s London Playbook.

Times Higher Education (THE) predicted a month ago that the question of refunds would “swiftly grow into a huge issue” for UK universities and the government.

The site reported that the DfE was believed to be modelling options for compensation through the loans system but that the refunds would probably apply only to accommodation fees. Chris Husbands, Sheffield Hallam University’s vice-chancellor, agreed that the issue of accommodation refunds probably had “more legs” than fees.

All the same, students in the UK have paid up to £9,000 for tuition this year - and many are demanding that the cash be paid back to compensate for the disruptions to their studies during the Covid-triggered university closures.

A criminology and forensic science student named only as Leanne told ITV last month that she only had one hour of face-to-face teaching in person during her last term. “It does feel like I'm a victim of daylight robbery,” she said.

According to THE, students seeking a fee refund have two potential routes: complain to their university or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, or complain to the Competition and Markets Authority [CMA].

Smita Jamdar, head of education at London-based law firm Shakespeare Martineau, told the site that the CMA had previously stated that suppliers are not allowed to deliver “something completely different” to what was promised in a contract, even in circumstances beyond their control.

But “applying that principle” to universities and the difference between online and face-to-face teaching “is really not easy”, Jamdar added.

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