To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to provide additional financial support to universities during the COVID-19 pandemic; what guidance they have provided to universities about dealing with requests for refunds of fees; and what plans they have to provide compensation to universities to cover the costs of such refunds.
To ask Her Majesty's Government what additional financial support they plan to provide to universities to deal with increased pressures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government has announced a UK-wide range of support, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and various business support packages, to assist businesses whose viability is threatened by the COVID-19 outbreak. These include the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme and COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility. If they need this support, higher education providers that meet the published criteria for the loan and financing schemes should approach their bank and begin to apply for the relevant scheme.
We are working closely with higher education providers and the regulator for the higher education sector in England, the Office for Students (OfS), to ensure that we maintain an up-to-date understanding of the financial risks and implications the COVID-19 outbreak is bringing to bear on the sector. The OfS has stated that one of its key priorities during the pandemic is to support the financial sustainability of the sector. Providers with concerns about their financial viability or sustainability have been encouraged to contact the OfS at the earliest opportunity.
The OfS has produced guidance on practical ways in which students can complete their studies whilst ensuring quality and standards are upheld during this difficult time. Providers are already making these arrangements and we are in close contact with the sector. There are some fantastic and innovative examples of high-quality distance and online learning being delivered by institutions across the UK, and the sector is already working hard to prepare learning materials for the summer and autumn terms. Students ordinarily should not expect any fee refund if they are receiving adequate online learning and support.
However, the government has made it clear that if institutions are unable to facilitate adequate online tuition then it would be unacceptable for students to be charged for any additional terms as, effectively, they would be charged twice. Whether an individual student is entitled to a refund of their fees will depend on specific contractual arrangements between the higher education providers and the student.
In the first instance, students should speak to their university. We expect student complaints and appeals processes to be operated flexibly, accessibly and sympathetically by institutions to resolve any concerns. Students who are not satisfied with their institution’s final response can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to consider their complaint if their institution is based in England or Wales.