For a debate on Petitions to Parliament attracting over a million signatures one might have expected more interest from MPs meeting to discuss Student Tuition Fee refunds last night (Monday, November 16).
Just seven took part to express concern at the way Covid-19 restrictions have impacted on students resulting in virtual imprisonment on some campuses and a huge reduction in the quality of teaching with lectures, tutorials and seminars moving on-line.
Make a note of these names – Chris Evans (Labour/Co-op, Islwyn), Esther McVey (Conservative, Tatton), Rachael Maskell (Labour/Co-op,York Central), Kim Johnson (Lab,Liverpool, Riverside), Claudie Webbe (Ind., Leicester East), Bell Ribeiro-Addy (Lab., Streatham) and Emma Hardy (Lab., Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) – because out of 650 MPs in the House of Commons only they bothered to represent you.
The debate was held in a quiet corner of Westminster Hall away from the main chamber and took around an hour and a half. All the above mentioned MPs told Universities Minister Michelle Donelan of the misery and neglect students are feeling as ‘cash cows’ of the university system.
Many highlighted how universities are not fulfilling their contractual obligations and how student consumer rights are being steamrollered.
The situation has become so intolerable that according to Chris Evans MP an unprecedented number are taking their own lives.
“The lack of clarity, and the difference between what students were led to believe and the reality of their teaching, have hugely affected students’ mental health.
“Since the beginning of the academic year, a student has died every week from suicide. Let me repeat that horrendous statistic: since September, every week, a student has taken their own life. Every week, parents have been told that their child died alone at their university,” he said.
Esther McVey highlighted how fear of reprisals means that very few students has sought redress from their university. She added that one constituents son was only at Newcastle University for 48 hours before he was told that all his tutorials and lectures would be online. If he had known that beforehand, he would have taken an Open University degree.”
Bell Ribiero-Addy said that in Manchester “students are calling the university Her Majesty’ Prison, Manchester because fences have been put up to keep them in.”
Kim Johnson said students were told is was safe to come back to university only to find out within days of term staring that they would be in lockdown with courses and Freshers Week moved on-line.
“They were encouraged by the Government and the universities to return full time to campuses, despite warnings from student bodies and campus unions, concerned about those scenarios. There is no certainty that university life—social or teaching—will return to normal for the second term. That is not worth £9,000-plus of anyone’s money,” she said.
According to Emma Hardy, “Students have a right not only to be heard but to be given answers. What is the Minister doing to ensure that universities have plans to make up for lost learning and to guarantee students’ learning outcomes for the duration of their degrees?
“Instead of endlessly issuing guidance, when will she sit down and work with universities and provide the support they need to ensure students get what they are entitled to—what they were promised by universities and the Government?”
In reply Universities Minister Michelle Donelan agreed that students have a case saying, “I am not for one moment suggesting that there have not been some institutions, or some faculties within them, that may not have given students the learning they deserve, as we have heard in accounts today.
But she ruled out any across the board compensation which would give students anonymity and prevent them from potential backlash saying that each student should apply individually to their university or if still unsatisfied to the Office For Independent Adjudication.
And what, after all this debate, was the result? As reported by Hansard it is as follows:
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 300528, 302855, 306494, 324762, and 552911, relating to university tuition fees.
And what does that mean? Very little, is the answer. The most effective way to get compensation is to take Universities to court because it is clear that they and the Government want to kick the issue into the long grass in the hope that it will go away.
A win in court, however, means the authorities will have no option but to pay out compensation as required by judges. Universities and Ministers cannot ignore the law in way they can ignore petitions and MPs.
So if you were in any doubt, please now sign up to Refund Student legal challenge to get a reduction in fees. It is free to join and remains the best way to get some money back.
To see the debate on line: https://parliamentlive.tv/Event/Index/22100c4a-d584-4192-bfef-9f681b89f98d
To read the Hansard report in full: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2020-11-16/debates/7BF8890F-3E72-44BC-B260-49E74D0B91C7/TuitionFees