Devil’s Advocate: Should Tuition-Paying Students Be Reimbursed for this Semester?

Yes – Rhiannon May – 77%

Since we were hurriedly sent home and plunged into a pandemic world last March, I have spent a grand total of just 12 hours receiving in-person teaching in university; despite the position of the University over the summer that we should all endeavour to be in St Andrews ready to receive in-person teaching as soon as restrictions allowed.

While the University clearly has no control over how the pandemic and subsequent restrictions have played out, it is my opinion that calling so many back to university for September was a grave decision. While the policy was later changed to allow anyone to study online, the financial damage had already been done; with many laying out cash on properties they couldn’t occupy yet weren’t willing to give up for fear of trying to find somewhere new for next academic year in the bubble’s diabolical housing situation.

It is my opinion that, at the very least, students of all fee statuses deserve a partial refund on tuition fees for this semester.

While I have mentioned losses for students in private accommodation above, which have failed to be addressed adequately by the University, this is not the primary justification for fee refunds but merely another element adding to the brewing feeling of discontent among students.

Research by the Higher Education Policy Institute revealed that just 45% of tuition fee revenue at English universities is spent on teaching. While not Scotland specific, this figure is likely to be applicable as a rough guide for how tuition is spent here too.

Despite such unusual circumstances, it is my experience that teaching staff have phenomenally adapted to online learning, recording materials, helping in any way they can and being particularly understanding of struggles we’ve had during this time. Therefore, tuition spent on teaching is tuition well spent.

Yet the question begs, if spending on teaching makes up roughly only half of our fees, where have the rest of our fees gone?

I’d be very keen to see a breakdown of how the rest of it is spent, especially in the current semester; whereby the services the University are offering us are rapidly dwindling.

Whereas last semester students in town could at least access a study space (with a bit of pre-planning), this is now a near impossible task with the system being booked up weeks in advance. Last year, I had little trouble accessing support from student services but in the current situation, I have been waiting over two weeks for a reply to an email I sent at a point of desperation; some people simply cannot afford to wait that long. We are unable to enter most University buildings, meaning they don’t need to be supplied with utilities right now.

These factors demonstrate that the services the University offers, which are funded partially by our fees, are currently not at all adequate in comparison to previous years (and even last semester) whereby a much higher standard of service was offered at the same fee rate.

I will admit the University has made some efforts to provide an experience, such as the Can Do tent which cost a considerable amount of time and effort, but this is just not enough to make up for the lack of other services on offer to students.

Critics of refund tuition may add that universities have been financially impacted by COVID, and therefore cannot afford to give refunds. Yet, in the Reports and Financial Statements of the University Court for the financial year ending 31 July 2020 (four months into the pandemic) the statements indicated a rise in revenue from tuition fees, funding body grants, research grants and “other income” (including residence fees, insurance compensation and consultancy among other categories). Coupled with this, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme saw a substantial reduction in staff costs for those employed in Residential and Business Services and Estates. Further adding to this, the Guardian reported that St Andrews has collected over £13,000 in COVID fines from students; with no indication as to where that money has gone. The current financial situation of the University is by no means diabolical enough for them to blatantly reject requests for refunds on financial grounds.

After all, if we were consumers in any other sector of the economy and received such a different experience to that which was sold to us we would absolutely expect and deserve a refund.

Despite this, the government maintains that universities must handle requests for tuition fee refunds on a one by one basis. However, if you feel strongly enough about what has been outlined above I urge you to consider submitting a request for a fee refund.

No – Alex Beckett – 23%

What is the relationship between a University and its students? What does it owe us, and in return, what – if anything – do we owe it? It our master and we its slaves, the pandemic is showing just how asymmetric this relationship is, and perhaps rightly so.

I empathise sincerely with those who have paid large sums of dosh to come and study at St Andrews, or at any British university, and have had their expectations tarnished by the disruptions that come alongside COVID: too little extracurricular brouhaha, too frequent isolation, and practically permanent distance learning. For me personally, £9250 is no small sum to fork over for daily screen fatigue and the momentary upset of being put into a breakout room without the classmate you would have hoped for. Although as a Brit I’m not yet footing the bill, my day of financial reckoning shall arrive soon enough.

However, such empathy does not lead me to the conclusion that tuition fees should be reimbursed. This is so for three principal reasons: the commercialisation of the university, the pure value of the elusive degree, and laughable student hypocrisy.

The modern university system is, frankly, broken. I, like many, would prefer to use a word much stronger than broken, but for this article it shall have to suffice. In effect, because of the bums-on-seats ideology that British universities have adopted for decades now – which is to say, get as many fee-paying students in as possible! – we presently find ourselves in the awkward situation of having to make a choice.

Either we can choose to acknowledge that, yes, the present level of commercialisation is undesirable, but that it allows a greater number of students to come to a great university, run efficiently, that employs numerous academics, experts in their fields, who offer one of the greatest educations possible in modern Britain – with the unfortunate drawback that when our fees are handed over in a contractual obligation, we have no real recourse to get them back. Or – and here’s where the fun begins – we can choose to follow in the footsteps of the want-to-be-world-changing socialist revolutionaries, who, red flags in hand, will cry out “Reimbursement or riot!”, perhaps without recognising the unintended consequences that would come alongside such stunning and brave behaviour: either fewer students would be accepted and fewer teachers employed, or the quality of teaching would naturally decline.

Onto the degree itself: the flimsy scrap of paper, or PDF document, you receive at the end of your degree with your name on it and your subject and, supposedly, how good you were at it – how impressive! It is a simple argument to make, that that scrap of paper is exactly what one has spent circa forty or eighty thousand pounds on; for were you, as a university student, to pull out of your studies the day before your degree’s termination, then in spite of all the knowledge and gifts you have obtained, you have nothing to show for it. In the ideal world, I acknowledge, this wouldn’t be such a problem – the wave of meritocracy would deliver you to where you should be in society. Sadly, our society is not ideal and doesn’t work as such. Hence, we cannot appeal to a lack of socialising nor of in-person teaching for a refund: we are paying for that degree, and by hook or by crook it will be given to us, eventually.

Finally, student hypocrisy: amongst the swathes of students calling for reimbursement, I am sure there are a number who supported in previous years the academic strikes that took place. If you are a part of this cohort, then you are engaging in complete and utter hypocrisy. It is through the money you give that academics receive a wage; if you want them to receive more – and I still don’t understand why you would, as UK university lectures can “expect to earn at least £33,000” according to CV-Library (well above the national average, as a minimum) – then you should donate! If you want them to receive more, you certainly should not demand that the money, due to go to them, be returned to you.