UK students want their tuition fees refunded as they begin their third year of study online

After an Observer analysis revealed that most universities plan to offer a mix of in-person seminars and online lectures when term resumes this autumn, students are facing a third year of online learning.

It prompted new calls for students to be reimbursed for at least a portion of the fees they pay each year if they are mostly taught online. The precise mix of teaching will be determined by social distancing rules and whether or not young people are double-vaccinated in a timely manner.

This autumn, most universities plan to offer students a mix of in-person seminars and online lectures. The precise mix will be determined by social distancing rules and whether or not young people are vaccinated twice in a timely manner.

University bosses are understood to be frustrated at how slow the government has been to confirm plans for September, with guidance on campus social distancing still not published. The delay, combined with pressure from the regulator, the Office for Students, to be more transparent, means students have been left confused by communications from universities outlining possible scenarios for the autumn, ranging from near normal to mostly online depending on the progress of the vaccination drive, the emergence of new variants and social distancing rules.

Vice-chancellors from the Russell Group of research-intensive universities have urged the government to support the implementation of pop-up vaccination centers on campuses at the start of the autumn semester.

This would help to avoid a repeat of last year’s Covid outbreaks, which left thousands of students angry and isolated as they were forced to lock themselves away in small rooms in residence halls.

Charlie Jeffrey, the vice-chancellor of York University, said: “The biggest thing is vaccination. That’s a precondition for universities operating as close to normal as we would wish them to. I’d like the government to see that as a priority, given the disruption university students have had to face. We’ve too often been an afterthought for the government, and students have felt that and are not happy about it.”

Although York was considering which buildings could be repurposed for classes in the event of a one-metre social distancing, Jeffrey stated that delivering all teaching in-person would be impossible. “We can’t build buildings in that amount of time,” he explained.

According to the Observer’s survey of 17 universities, many are planning for two scenarios: one in which social distancing rules are lifted, allowing campuses to return to normalcy, and another in which one-metre distances must be observed, reducing capacity in university buildings – potentially by a quarter – and forcing more teaching online.

Some universities are clear about their plans, such as Cardiff, which stated that all classes with more than 60 students will be online, while others are more ambiguous, such as Durham, which stated that the mix of online and in-person would depend on the course and year of study, and UCL, which stated that some modules would be completely online while others would be taught using a combination of online and in-person.


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