Students face full tuition fees for online classes

Universities in England can still charge full tuition fees if their courses are taught online because of the coronavirus outbreak, the government has confirmed.

Students will not be entitled to refunds or compensation “if the quality is there”, said Michele Donelan, the minister of state responsible for the higher education sector.

“We have already seen over the last few months courses being delivered online and virtually at an amazing quality and degree and I know the efforts that staff across the sector have made to be able to facilitate that,” she added.

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“We have always said that we don’t believe students would be entitled to reimbursements of tuition fees if the quality is there. Of course, there are processes that they can follow if they feel that the quality isn’t there.”

It came as the government announced financial support for universities affected by the closure of campuses and a fall in the numbers of international students willing to come to the UK.

The measures include bringing forward £2.6 billion in tuition fee payments and £100 million in research funding from the next academic year. Universities will also be able to use £46m of existing funds for April and May to help students in financial difficulty.

Temporary controls will limit the number of places for UK and EU students for 2020-21 in an attempt to prevent universities from competing to recruit the reduced number of applicants.

Ministers can allocate an additional 10,000 places, with 5,000 ring-fenced for nursing, midwifery or allied health courses.

Universities UK, which represents the sector, welcomed the measures as “recognition from government of the central role that universities will play in the recovery of the economy and communities and the urgent need to provide support for universities to weather the severe financial storm created by Covid-19.”

However the government was also criticised for failing to go far enough to tackle a predicted £2.5m “black hole” in funding for universities across the UK.

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“This package does not deliver the protection or stability that students, staff and the communities they serve so desperately need,” said ​Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, which represents academic staff.

“The Office for Budget Responsibility says universities are most at risk of financial pain from the current crisis and they need more than IOUs to solve the problems they face.

‘Instead of kicking the can down the road, the government must underwrite funding lost from a fall in domestic and international student numbers and remove incentives for universities to compete against each other at a time when we need to be pulling together.’

Shadow further education minister Emma Hardy said: “This disappointing package offers no long-term security to our universities, putting the anchors of our regional economies at risk.

“The government must urgently produce a plan to safeguard the future of our universities and ensure that across the UK everyone has the same opportunity to study at university regardless of where they live.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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