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Compensation for the ‘Class of Covid:’ Bristol SU launches its Fee Justice Campaign

The University of Bristol Students’ Union has today launched its fee justice campaign to gain financial compensation for all students at university in the academic year 2020/21.

By Megan Evans, News Subeditor

The University of Bristol Students’ Union has today launched its Fee Justice Campaign to gain financial compensation for all students at university in the academic year 2020/21.

From Monday 15 March, Bristol SU are launching the campaign for a 30 per cent fee reduction for all university students in education this academic year.

The campaign’s three key aims are as follows:
• To gain compensation for the ‘Class of Covid’
• To reduce fees paid by international students
• To show the government that ‘the pandemic has proven the current tuition fee model is unworkable.’

In this campaign, the SU are aiming to work with the University to call on the government to provide compensation, rather than demand it from the university itself, so as not to risk university staff jobs and worsen the student experience.

The SU will also be lobbying the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA is a regulator that stands up for consumers, and the fee-based system of higher education means it can be argued that students should be considered consumers.

Speaking to Epigram, Undergraduate Education Officer David Ion states that the SU hopes to get the University ‘to publicly recognise that students have lost out on education this year,’ and receive their help in lobbying the government for fee reductions.

In a statement, SU officers have said: ‘This year the promise of “blended learning” has been far from the reality. We’re calling for compensation on tuition fees for the experience received this academic year by the “Class of Covid”.’

‘Students really appreciate the immense effort of staff to put their teaching online. Our campaign is not trying to undermine the work staff continue to put into students’ education, but is in recognition of the blatant fact that Covid has impacted students’ educational experience.

‘Students feel that the university experience sold to them over summer has been far from the reality.

‘There has been extensive student criticism of astronomically high fees and so far the University has failed to engage with this conversation meaningfully. There are very valid fears that the cost of blanket tuition fee reimbursements could lead to mass redundancies and a diminished student experience, which we want to avoid at all costs. Justice on fees must be backed by a government bail-out of higher education.’

Another focus of the campaign is fee reductions for international students. This includes lobbying the University to reverse its decision to continue to raise international tuition fees, which are due to rise again.

In their statement, SU Officers iterate that ‘international students have been particularly badly hit, some having travelled across the globe to be in Bristol for no reason, and some not even making it to Bristol the entirety of this academic year.’

‘Having to pay up to £38,000 a year with fees set to rise again in 2021/22 seems wholly unjustified given the circumstances’ it adds.

In addition to this, International Students’ Officer Roy Kiruri has co-written and signed a letter to the Russell Group asking for action on fees, and has also submitted a petition to Parliament asking for a reduction of international fees and a government bailout of higher education in light of the pandemic.

He told Epigram that this campaign is particularly necessary given the University’s decision to increase tuition fees for international students this year despite a reduction in the resources available to them.

Roy claims the SU have based their campaign from consultations and meetings with students from all six faculties.

The SU’s campaign encourages collective action from students to take part in activity at both a local and national level. Today, these ‘calls to action’ include filling out a form to explain why students deserve refunds, sending a letter to Bristol University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, and sharing stories on social media.

Upcoming events are due to include a virtual Town Hall event (Friday 19 March), student and parent letter writing to local MPs (Monday 22 March), and a ‘Week of Action’ coordinated with other SUs across the country (19-23 April).

The campaign hopes to prove that the current system of tuition fees is ‘unworkable’ and ‘broken.’

On this point, David Ion states: ‘the commercialisation of Higher Education is based on false premises. It views education as a commodity that can be bought and sold. But if it can be bought and sold then it can be refunded too. Obviously it fails students due to the massive amounts of debt. But this pandemic also shows there are massive downsides for universities.

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‘The whole idea that education is a commodity that can be bought and sold is fundamentally flawed, and this pandemic is laying it bare.’

In their launch statement, the SU states that: ‘ultimately, the pandemic has proven that the fee-based system of funding universities is broken, and higher education should be free. Fee justice for this year is the first step on that road.

‘Students this year are united against excessive fees for a severely impacted educational experience – it’s time we organise collective action to make our voice heard.’

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In a statement commenting on the launch of the SU's new campaign, Professor Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, said: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has caused serious disruption to student life and has posed an unprecedented challenge for the university sector. We understand our students’ concerns and are committed to working closely with Bristol SU, with whom we have been having very constructive and open discussions.

‘Our ability to offer in-person teaching remains subject to the government’s evolving Covid-19 guidance and safety restrictions. Despite the challenging circumstances, we remain committed to delivering the same high-quality learning outcomes for our students this year. Our staff have worked intensively to adapt their teaching to incorporate online provision, and to provide students with a high-quality learning experience.

‘The University has invested considerably in its response to the pandemic. This includes transforming our digital capacity and making campus Covid-secure to keep students and staff. We have also introduced a Coronavirus Impact Fund to support students who are experiencing financial hardship as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

‘We encourage students who are having difficulty continuing with their learning, perhaps because of illness, caring responsibilities or lack of access to IT, to make this known to the University using our existing extenuating circumstances process.

‘For all these reasons, we do not plan to offer blanket tuition fee refunds. However, in line with the guidance given to students by the Office for Students, we will continue to consider students’ concerns on a case-by-case basis through our established procedures. We will also be working closely with our Student Union, Universities UK and the Russell Group to ensure our students’ views are clearly communicated to the government.’

More information on the SU's Fee Justice Campaign can be found here.

Featured image: Patrick Sullivan

Will you be taking part in the fee reduction campaign?