Students: Coronavirus

Department for Education written question – answered on 30th March 2021.

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Photo of Claudia Webbe Claudia Webbe Independent, Leicester East

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment he has made of the potential merits of forgiving student debt accrued during the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

This has been a very difficult time for students, and the government is working with the higher education (HE) sector to make sure all reasonable efforts are being made to enable students to continue their studies. We thank all HE staff for their tireless work to ensure that young people do not have to put their lives or their academic journeys on hold.

The government’s clear and stated expectation is that universities should maintain the quality and quantity of tuition and should seek to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, have the resources to study remotely.

Universities are autonomous and responsible for setting their own fees within maximum fee limits set by regulations. The government is committed to a sustainable HE funding model that supports high quality provision, meets the skills needs of the country and maintains the world-class reputation of UK HE. We recognise that tuition fees must continue to represent value for money for students and taxpayers, both during the COVID-19 outbreak and afterwards.

The government has already announced that the maximum tuition fee cap will remain at £9,250 for the 2021/22 academic year, in respect of standard full-time courses at approved (fee cap) HE providers. We also intend to freeze the maximum tuition fee caps for the 2022/23 academic year to deliver better value for students and to keep the cost of HE under control (the fifth year in succession that maximum fees have been frozen). Our income-contingent student loan system helps remove financial barriers to study and means that no eligible student needs to pay tuition fees upfront.

The Office for Students, as the regulator for HE providers in England, has made it clear that HE providers must continue to comply with registration conditions relating to quality and academic standards. These standards set out requirements to ensure that courses are high-quality, that all students (both domestic and international) are supported and achieve good outcomes and that standards are protected, regardless of whether a provider is delivering its courses through face-to-face teaching, remote online learning or a combination of both.

Whether or not an individual student is entitled to a refund will depend on the specific contractual arrangements between the HE provider and student. If students have concerns, there is a process in place. They should first raise their concerns with their university. If their concerns remain unresolved, students at providers in England or Wales can ask the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) for Higher Education to consider their complaint, this is the case for both domestic and international students. The OIA website is available at: https://www.oiahe.org.uk/.

The OfS does not get involved in individual student complaints, as this is for the relevant HE provider and possibly the OIA. Students can, however, notify the OfS of issues that may be of regulatory interest to it. These are called ‘notifications’. The OfS uses this information as part of its regulatory monitoring activity and keep higher education providers under review to ensure that they comply with the ongoing conditions of registration. The OfS has produced a guide for students to support them in this process, which is available here: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/office-for-students-notifications/.

The government recognises that in these exceptional circumstances some students may face financial hardship. The department has worked with the OfS to clarify that providers are able to use existing funds, worth around £256 million for the academic year 2020/21, towards hardship support. We have also made an additional £70 million of student hardship funding available to HE providers this financial year. HE providers have flexibility in how they distribute the funding to students, in a way that best prioritises those in greatest need – this is available to all students.

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