Following guidelines from Public Health England, Newcastle University decided to terminate face-to-face teaching from Tuesday 17th March and strongly encouraged students to return home if they could, adding that all learning would continue remotely until September.
Financial information released by the university reveals that tuition fees and education contracts provides 43% of total yearly income, and £62 million per year is spent on “maintaining and running University buildings, student teaching spaces, research laboratories, student support premises and sports buildings” whilst £24.8 million is spent on “residences, conferences and catering”. With buildings no longer in use, residences largely empty and conferences cancelled, Newcastle's student population has appealed for partial refunds. In response, the “Coronavirus FAQ” section of the University website expresses “sympathy” for the issue but states “In order to [adapt to the situation caused by the pandemic] and continue delivery and support such as virtual learning environments, remote counselling, e-library etc we need the supporting infrastructure that your fees pay for.”
A student of another university which has experienced teaching disruption due to strike action, Sophie Quinn of Liverpool University, started a petition demanding reimbursement of tuition fees that has gained over 235,000 signatures. She notes disruption in teaching due to UCU strikes along with the drastic change in how teaching is to be delivered during the pandemic. “Of course, university is a place of independent learning but now we aren’t even able to access the resources that our tuition fees pay for such as study space, libraries and field trips, to name a few.
“I do not blame the universities and mine in particular is trying very hard to adapt and continue our education but it can’t be disputed that online learning along with long industrial action, does not warrant £9,250 that we will have to pay back.”
In response to the petition a spokesperson for Universities UK, a membership group of vice-chancellors, commented: "We appreciate these solutions are not perfect for students but this is an unprecedented situation. Students who are not satisfied with the support they are getting should make this known to their university in the first instance.”. In contrast Vice-Chancellor John Cater of Edge Hill University spoke out in validation of the case for reimbursement, calling for the UK Government to “write off a proportion of this year’s tuition fee loan”.
The legal challenge between education providers’ contractual obligations and extenuating circumstances lies in the precise wording of terms and conditions. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) produces guidelines on the protection of consumer rights within higher education, and universities’ access to public funding is now conditional upon compliance with these guidelines. They state that “A term [in the terms and conditions] that allows a university too much discretion to make sweeping changes to your course – such as the course content, location of study, method of assessment or the final qualification to be awarded – is likely to be considered unfair unless it describes the circumstances when and reasons why this might happen”. The corresponding section of Newcastle University terms and conditions warns “In rare circumstances, it may be necessary for the University to make changes to its provision in response to unforeseen circumstances. Changes might include, for example: changes to the timetable, location, number of classes and method of delivery of programmes of study, provided such alterations are reasonable.”
Due to the sudden nature of university closures, staff had little time to prepare for the introduction of remote learning but an email from the Academic Registrar Lucy Backhurst assures students that “we remain open and operating and doing everything we can to transition our teaching and learning to remote delivery.”