Opinion | Asking for fee reductions is unreasonable


By Joe Marshall, Opinion Subeditor

With universities restarting teaching over the last few weeks, public discussion has reignited over the issue of whether students are truly getting value for money in ‘blended’ or fully virtual teaching, and whether fees should be reduced as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, the idea of lower fees sounds good – but it’d be unfair for you and I to expect it.

Before unpacking this perhaps provocative headline argument, I would stress that it applies to students who don’t have practical degrees, but rather those based on reading.

In attending university in the first place, even in normal times, domestic and EU students have accepted that there is a £9250 yearly tuition fee. As a student in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, my experiences in first year never involved more than eight hours of face-to-face teaching a week.

I, along with many who have a similar amount of contact hours, am therefore paying for far more than face-to-face learning, such as wellbeing services, the running and maintenance of university buildings and more. I agree: the tuition fee is excessive in normal times, and it should be lower – but not because of online learning. Fee levels in normal times are another debate.

For us to say that the £9,250 goes merely towards a few hours of video calls is a melodramatic simplification. Furthermore, it’s insulting to the academic staff who have had to make the best of a bad situation.

In criticising online teaching before we’ve really got started on it, and expecting an immediately flawless service in something that’s new for both staff and students, we’re dismissing the efforts of those who enjoy teaching us face-to-face, and would do so if they could.

Even the most optimistic can’t be that happy with the way 2020 has panned out

For all the talk of the younger generation being one that is idealistic, we’ve entered Teaching Block One with an attitude of distinct defeatism. Students seem almost determined to believe that online teaching is unworkable – or at least say it is, in the hope that it might make our loan a little smaller.

That’s perhaps to be expected; even the most optimistic can’t be that happy with the way 2020 has panned out.

However, the reality is that significant investment has been made to support the transformational way in which the University provides education. Couple this with a fall in income from international students, and it leaves students looking naïve in the demand for universities to reimburse us.

We shouldn’t demand a fee reduction in the face of online teaching

If you’re still unconvinced, we could revert to the fact that, for many of us, a partial fee reduction would not make a difference to how much we ultimately pay anyway.

Given that most domestic students borrow from the government to pay for tuition and living costs, the idea of around £50,000 of debt by the end of a degree doesn’t appeal. Although psychologically I’d welcome a reduction to that figure, it’s unlikely I’ll get close to paying it off.

In fact, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 83% of us students are forecasted not to pay off our entire loan, as it is written off after thirty years. Therefore, a reduction in however much we could feasibly expect the university to reimburse us would not make a difference for most of the 83%.

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For a small few of us, it might mean we’d stop paying a couple months or years earlier in our late forties, but it will still be the same amount be taken out of our payslip when we enter employment.

If the failure of Blackboard on 5th October were to reoccur frequently through the year, my argument wouldn’t stand. If you’re taking a more practical course such as Theatre Studies, there would be specific – and for me, convincing - arguments as to why fees should be reduced.

I’m conscious that readers might think I’m opposed to the idea of less debt. That if I had my way, we’d all be paying even more! That’s not the case; my argument is simply that we shouldn’t demand a fee reduction in the face of online teaching. To conclude on a cliché; our education this year will be what we make of it.

Featured Image: Epigram / Lucy O'Neill

Do you think students should be entitled to a tuition fee refund?