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The Problem with Full Tuition and Online Learning

‘No student will be disadvantaged’ says Vice-Principal of Education at QMUL

Thousands of students across the country are calling the bill of £9,250 for the academic year unfair, reasoning that the obligatory full payment is not in line with the service received.

This year, the effect of coronavirus on universities has been substantial. Academically, it has meant that in-person teaching is largely an impossibility. Institutions have made the shift into an online approach to learning with software like Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Blackboard Collaborate becoming thousands of students’ new virtual lecture halls and classrooms.

Students are arguing that paying the usual tuition fee does not make sense considering this. Many agree that the standard of online teaching is lesser in quality, through no fault of the teachers. It is understood that a seminar with glitching, fluctuating audio and video quality is common, and that the social learning environment of a box dorm room is not equal to a real-life seminar or lecture where collaboration and discussion can occur more easily.

Further, those undertaking courses which require access to facilities on campus and elsewhere such as laboratories, libraries, archives or studios are largely having to navigate their course without this essential learning, and are expected to perform academically as if their education had not changed.

Some argue that thousands of students’ tuition funds could have been used to supply teachers with adequate equipment such as high-quality webcams in order to prepare for these issues. Some also argue that tuition should be used to prepare students for learning at home, with some reimbursement to allow students to buy equipment that allows them to access their education as effectively as possible.

The petition ‘Require universities to partially refund tuition fees for 20/21 due to Covid-19′ has reached over 200,000 signatures. The petition argues that ‘The quality of online lectures is not equal to face-to-face lectures’ and that students should not be paying full fees ‘without experiencing university life’. They call the government to ‘require UK universities to partially refund tuition fees while online teaching is implemented’, saying that their courses ‘might not be worth the amount of money universities are asking for’.

It is known that Britain’s tuition fee rates are among the highest in the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2019 statistical survey across 37 countries and economies shows that England has the second-highest tuition fee rates, after the US. Many students are asking, now – where are these funds going?

Coronavirus has had a massive financial impact on universities this year. According to the British Council, there has been a decline of 12% in international student numbers in 2020. Further, there were 14,000 fewer new enrolments from East Asia than in 2019, meaning a loss of £460 million in tuition fees and living costs. Students question whether fees will remain as high as they are despite changes to their education to amount for these financial losses.

The general agreement among students is that action must be taken. A poll hosted on Twitter by @PoliticsPollss asked ‘Universities in England must consider refunding some tuition fees, their regulator has said. Do you think students should be refunded part of their tuition fees?’. The result supported the idea that students should be reimbursed, with 81% of 246 agreeing that universities should consider refunds.

Some also feel that students should take action and protest against full tuition, and some protests have occurred across the country. Currently, the protest group ‘9kForWhat’ has organized demonstrations across the UK and aims to ‘unite disenfranchised and alienated students in the UK’. Real-life and virtual demonstrations have taken place and are planned to take place in Newcastle and Stirling.

Vice-Principal of Education at QMUL Stephanie Marshall has commented on the issue, saying that Queen Mary ‘won’t be discounting tuition because we think the value of a Queen Mary education is as good as any other Russell Group or world-class university. We have invested millions and millions into our education this year to make sure we don’t short-change our students, and we will continue to do that as we ramp up what our blended learning offer is like.’

She says students have ‘got to concentrate harder and be prepared to a much deeper level than expected before. I feel confident that what we are offering is a really rigorous education’, and that ‘you can all help us by being the pioneers of this new approach.’

She also says that online learning will increase students’ employability, saying that ‘By the time [students] graduate, you will be viewed by employers as someone who is very self-directed in terms of your learning, and therefore a greater asset to the workplace. Consistently, some of the top skills employers are looking for are understanding technological development and being a ‘self-starter’. Employers want students who can hit the ground running, particularly with regards to the technological advances in society at large.’

Regarding financial matters, she commented ‘…the cost of online education is far greater than traditional education. It takes huge investment. If we were to cost out the staff time in preparing online modules the amount would be phenomenal. We’ve made this shift and we need now to enhance it.’

This year, across the country students have argued that they cannot complete work and prosper academically at the same standard as other years. I asked whether, in terms of grades, QMUL students will receive any consideration for the current climate, including mental health effects as a result of isolation, as well as the lack of face to face learning environments.

On this matter, Marshall commented that last year’s students prospered with online learning. ‘We were delighted with how well our students did last year. The open book exams proved to be a really powerful way for students to apply themselves, and staff couldn’t believe some of the great responses they got from students. In science and engineering, students were set projects to do and work on. Our standards are upheld by external examiners and we got such amazing feedback from them – “Given what a difficult year it was, given the shift online, your students have done an amazing job in realising their learning outcomes”. We always knew we had bright students but last year they really demonstrated their full potential.’

Last year, grade discounting existed as a ‘safety net’. She said, ‘We want to celebrate diversity and inclusivity, and we knew there would be some students who would have difficulties accessing the kit they needed to perform as well as they might have done.’

However, this year QMUL is ‘reverting to normal’, with no consideration to this year’s students’ academic performance. ‘I can assure you no student will be disadvantaged because of the pandemic. This is really key for us.’

Parliament is set to debate the issue ‘Require universities to partially refund tuition fees for 20/21 due to Covid-19’ on Monday, 16th November.


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