Students whose courses have been thrown into chaos by the coronavirus pandemic should be reimbursed for the year or allowed to retake it at no further cost, according to the National Union of Students.
NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim said students were in danger of being overlooked and forgotten in the crisis, and she called on the government to set up a £60m student hardship fund to help support those who are struggling financially.
The Covid-19 crisis has caused havoc in universities, where face-to-face teaching has been abandoned and courses shifted online, which students report has happened with varying degrees of success.
Graduation ceremonies have been cancelled and student life brought to a standstill, with most students travelling home to be with family, though significant numbers – including international students – remain stranded on desolate campuses.
An NUS survey of 10,000 higher and further education students across the UK, which attempts to uncover the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on their lives, found that up to 85% of working students say they will need additional financial support because they have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown.
Almost three quarters said they were worried about the risk to their final qualification as traditional exams are cancelled and assessment moves online, while a third feared they would be unable to properly access their education. Many more were worried about the lasting impact of the virus on their future prospects.
Nearly all (95%) were anxious about the impact of the virus on the economy, 81% were worried about their job prospects and 71% were concerned about the impact the pandemic will have on their employability as they emerge from education into what is likely to be a severe global recession.
Launching the NUS student safety net campaign, Ibrahim said every student should have the option to repeat their year at no further cost, with full maintenance support. She also demanded the reimbursement of a year’s tuition fees for students who have paid upfront, or a write-off of one year’s debt for those who have paid through loans.
“We urgently need a student safety net for all students across the UK,” said Ibrahim. “Coronavirus has hit thousands of students in the pocket and severely affected the quality of their learning.
“The current crisis has shown that students occupy the worst of all possible worlds – with the majority paying extortionate fees for their education and treated as consumers but left out in the cold when the product cannot be delivered as described.”
In addition, she said, thousands of trainee key workers, including healthcare students, were building up debt whilst having their education disrupted or volunteering to fight coronavirus on the frontline.
“The impact of this disruption will not be felt equally, with those on placements and disabled students feeling the impact particularly severely,” said Ibrahim. “Students are being forgotten during the Covid-19 pandemic. We are the future workforce that will have to help to rebuild our economy over the coming years.”
A spokesperson for Universities UK, the umbrella organisation which represents higher education leaders, said: “We recognise that this is an unsettling and difficult time for all students … Huge efforts are ongoing so that this year’s finalists can graduate with a degree they can be proud of and which is in line with guidance from the bodies responsible for quality and standards and with the relevant accrediting bodies, and we are looking at ways in which new graduates can be supported as they enter a difficult jobs market later in the year.
“Where there is wide-ranging support for active and ongoing learning and progression, students should not expect any fee refund from their university, and this has been confirmed recently by the universities minister.
“Students who have difficulty continuing with their learning next term, perhaps because of illness, caring responsibilities or lack of access to IT, or who are not satisfied with the alternative provision and support they are getting, should make this known to their university in the first instance. Every university will have their own established process for managing complaints, and will be mindful of the extenuating circumstances.”
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