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UK: full tuition for online courses questioned

Full tuition will be charged if universities remain closed in the UK and courses shift online, UK universities minister Michelle Donelan has said, but stakeholders have warned a large number of courses are unsuitable for online learning.

NUS estimates that courses for 40% students in UK higher education are unsuitable for online learning. Photo: Pexels/ cottonbro

"We estimate that almost 40% of higher students have been left unable to access their education online"

“We only expect full tuition fees to be charged if online courses are of good quality, fit for purpose and help students progress towards their qualification,” Donelan said, adding that no decision has yet been taken on social measures impacting next academic year.

“Universities will need to rethink the entire student journey”

“If unis want to charge full fees they will have to ensure that the quality is there. Students who are concerned that they aren’t receiving the adequate quality of provision at the moment should first talk to their uni or college.”

But according to the National Union of Students, courses for an estimated 40% of students in UK higher education are unsuitable for online learning.

In addition to concerns about the quality of online learning, money is a “huge issue” according to peer-to-peer platform Unibuddy, which analysed over three million messages sent by prospective students.

“Money is a huge issue. Particularly for international students, and particularly from certain parts of the world, there is a high demand for information about scholarships and financial support,” said the company’s CEO and co-founder, Diego Fanara.

Prospective students will be looking for reassurance that their online learning experience will give them as much benefit – and value for money – as the offline experience, Fanara added.

“Universities will need to rethink the entire student journey, starting from pre-enrolment, to utilise the benefits of technology and provide a digital experience to rival the in-person one,” he said.

Fanara said that as universities start to put in place their plans for the 2020 cohort, transparency and regular communication with students is vital.

“We are already seeing, from prospective students, that they are building affinity and a sense of belonging with the universities that are setting clear expectations and keeping them informed.”

Universities in the UK has previously warned that a total loss of international student fee income in 2020 would result a £6.9 billion loss, while the government denied a bailout.

However, on May 4 the government said it would bring forward both £2.6bn of forecast domestic tuition fee payments and £100m of government research funding.

Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS vice president (Higher Education), labelled the government support package as “disappointing”, as it did not tackle the urgent questions of tuition fee debt write-offs and reimbursements.

“We estimate that almost 40% of higher students have been left unable to access their education online through their courses being unsuitable for online learning,” she said.

“These students simply cannot access their studios, materials and placements during the pandemic – or they have completed early to work in the NHS.

“The government needs to stop ignoring the plight of students who are our nurses, midwives, pharmacists and essential workers of the future, and give us all the opportunity to redo the year at no additional cost, or have our debt and costs written off or reimbursed,” she said.

Additionally, a petition demanding reimbursement for all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and Covid-19 has seen over 338,000 signatures.

Chief executive of Independent Higher Education, Alex Proudfoot, welcomed “the agreement to reprofile payments from the Student Loans Company, which will help them to invest in the student learning experience at a challenging time”.

But he added, “More investment will be needed in order to fully deliver the transformation required for a high-quality blended learning experience across the sector.”

Head of Europe at Coursera, Anthony Tattersall, warned that providers need to offer learners with education at a “fair cost”.

“Simply moving online is not enough; we must deliver a thoughtfully designed, high-quality experience”

“When students and faculty return to campus, universities will inevitably have to expand their services to remain attractive to students – blended, online and flexible learning options will be needed to support those unable or unwilling to travel, or those whose ability to fund their education has been adversely impacted,” he said in a statement.

“As we transition, we must provide universities and their members of staff, with the right support to navigate the unusual and choppy waters ahead. We must understand institutions are having to adjust much faster than expected and are lacking the resources to do so.

“Simply moving online is not enough; we must deliver a thoughtfully designed, high-quality experience.”

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