University students need a better deal

Today the Petitions Committee, which I chair, has published our new report on support for universities and students amid the pandemic.

More than 347,000 people signed an e-petition calling for the Government to reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19.

As part of our Committee’s investigation, over 28,000 students, parents and university staff shared their views and experiences.

We heard evidence on how the outbreak has impacted, in particular, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those on more hands-on courses where students need to use university facilities.

Our research found that:

  • Just 7% of students surveyed felt satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of their education they are currently receiving.
  • 87% of students noted their teaching hours had decreased since social distancing guidelines were introduced.
  • 47% of students surveyed revealed they were paying for university accommodation they don’t currently need.

Despite the hard work of lecturers and support staff, some universities have been unable to provide courses in a way that students feel is good value for money. Therefore, while we do not consider that a blanket refund for all students is necessarily required, we believe that the Government has a role in ensuring any student whose university experience has fallen short is compensated.

We’ve called on the Government to work with universities, the Office for Students, and Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to establish a new system with clear guidance on which circumstances students can seek a refund or to repeat part of their course. The Government should provide funding to cover any refunds.

The crisis has also been hugely disruptive to students finishing their studies and graduating this year. We think the Government should make additional funding available for those who want to extend their education after the outbreak, and to provide ongoing employment advice and support beyond graduation in what is likely to be an extremely challenging employment market.

The Coronavirus pandemic and its effect on UK universities represents the greatest challenge they have faced for generations. If the Government fails to offer a comprehensive and accessible support package for both universities and students, then we face letting down an entire generation, and critically damaging a sector that will play a crucial role in our country’s post-Covid economic recovery, especially here in the North East.

I’ve written separately as a Newcastle MP to the Universities Minister to ensure our world class universities are supported through the crisis, especially in maintaining their funding for research and innovation.

Read more about the Petitions inquiry and our recommendations here: