The 2020-2021 Sabbatical Officer team would like to express our full solidarity with the student body on the situation regarding tuition fees. This is a very complex issue and I have been hearing your concerns on this matter and raising them to the University. Alongside the Postgraduate Officer, we have been providing constant feedback and consultation to the University on this and many other issues such as personal tutoring, assessment and feedback, teaching quality and facility access. These concerns highlighted to us, as well as tuition fees have been raised with the aim of mitigating the negative impact of your learning experience throughout the ever-changing situation of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Starting or continuing your education in these conditions is disappointing, to say the least. Having just finished my own education in September, I understand how you are feeling. Like many of you, I studied both during the strikes and the pandemic, in total only having 3 months in-person teaching during my PGT programme. Therefore, I sympathise with the fact that working online is a very different learning and teaching environment for students and staff alike.
Teaching staff over the summer have been preparing for this new style of teaching, some being incredibly creative with new online content. Although the style of teaching is massively different, teaching staff are still delivering your education under unusual circumstances. Therefore, it is important for students and staff to work in partnership this year to determine what works for you and your education. As a result, NUSU believes that any ‘call to arms’ around tuition fees and refunds should be directed towards the wider University sector and the Government. A united student and staff collective can be more powerful than a divided ‘Us vs Them’ rationality as often, student and staff concerns are similar if not identical, with regards to how your education at Newcastle is run.
It was decided by the University in the summer that an aim of 3 hours Present in Person or PIP teaching would be given to students, subject to changes of the R rate. This was agreed as part of the University’s Education Resilience Framework “that taught provision for the academic year 2020-21 would be planned in a way that is flexible and agile i.e. capable of switching between modes at short notice and to have alternatives for students who cannot attend on campus." This was introduced at a time when both students and staff were able to be kept safe, if classes were at a 25% capacity and considering the 2 metre social distancing rule. In line with Tier 3 teaching on campus and concerns from the University and College Union, this has now further developed, quite rightly, to “Tier 3 teaching arrangements going forward will be to provide present-in-person (PIP) teaching on courses only where; it is essential to meet the programme learning outcomes and/ or satisfy the requirements of subject-specific accrediting bodies or access is required to subject specialist learning spaces and/or equipment/instruments.” This was a very difficult decision for University staff to make. Some students and staff wanted to come back, wanted to see the campus, their fellow students, some felt like they weren’t getting ‘value for money’ by not having this contact and as a SU we also tried our best to offer a safe but blended approach to your return. However, we must remember those who are vulnerable to this virus, those who have to shield in these circumstances. They have no choice but to be remote during this pandemic. Therefore, while some students are understandably disappointed with the move to tier 3, we must consider the whole community both staff and students, who it is important to be online during this time as any decisions that are made, are made with the wider University community in mind. Find out more about Tier 3 and our demands to the University on this, here.
Debt Reduction and Fee Refunds
It is important to note that most students do not have any direct financial relationship with the University, due to the student loan system in the UK. However, this is contextual depending on how you choose to pay your fees and whether you are a home or international student. Therefore, one solution, such as a debt reduction or refund, would not fit every student on this issue. In the case of debt reduction, this would most likely harm the poorest students, particularly due to the fact that the less debt you accumulate, the more you are likely to pay off. As the loan system is poorly designed a refund could also have unintended risks. In many cases, it could lead to bankruptcy, particularly for smaller Universities. As, if refunding or reduction were to happen at one University, it would act as a ‘domino effect’ and other institutions would be made to ‘fall in line’ with the sector. Additionally, already stretched services could be harmed, as well as future students, who potentially could be affected unintentionally by the loss of our fees. I understand that these are hypothetical instances, but I think it is important that I am transparent about the potential implications of either of these options. In the interest of equity, I do believe that the University sector should seek to refund or reduce some of the fees paid by international students. International students do have a direct financial relationship with the University and pay a significantly higher fee amount. Further, their fees are connected to their Visa and they are sometimes required immediately, upon graduation, to pay their fees back. This is something that is not asked of home students.
Therefore, home student debt can be seen as a type of ‘graduate tax’. If you are a UK Home student, you will begin to pay back your student loans (plus interest – see below) from the 5 April after you finish your degree, but only if you are earning more than £ 26,575 a year. You are required to repay 9% of everything on all earnings above the £26,575 threshold each year. If you earn less than £26,575 you do not have to pay anything back. Any loan not repaid after 30 years is wiped off.
What can be done and what are NUSU doing?
The Government has given no support financially or otherwise to Universities or young people during this pandemic, we have been largely forgotten about or used as scapegoats. As a result, Universities have had no choice but to recruit students and allow them to take the financial burden of this virus, which has been created due to the lack of support. The onus on students to provide this via their tuition fees is something which has quite rightly, sparked a lot of complaints and initiatives. From my perspective, I believe it is important to both lobby nationally and through individual complaints to the University, to have your voice heard.
I have written to Chi Onwurah MP, to push this in Parliament at a national level. Chi has responded through one of her caseworkers, who has reiterated that Chi will “write to the Secretary of State for Education” and will push for “a full Government stance on the issue of student debt in the context of Covid-19”. Further, alongside your Postgraduate Officer, we have been pushing the student agenda in University Education Committee, which is the highest Educational meeting that we both sit on. My main campaign which will be launched soon, is called S.O.S (Supporting Our Students), this is with the aim to provide resources on this issue and others affecting you. In addition, S.O.S will also contain a vote on tuition fees, which will be shared on NUSU Social Media, so you can truly have your say. I have also been raising the issue of having good quality facilities available for students, whether that be on campus and in the library, for example or at home with I.T support. I believe that practical changes, demanding more funding for the resources that are already available to us, could be an effective plan to take on this issue.
Further, when the result of the vote is determined we will lobby the University from the democratically decided stance.
If you would like a refund from the University, you must meet the circumstances required. The refund process document can be found here - https://www.ncl.ac.uk/tuition-fees/refunds/#d.en.783630
The Government consumer law on this issue can be found here - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-consumer-law-advice-for-providers
For other ways that NUSU has been supporting you financially, here are some recent examples of how we have campaigned to support you:
NUSU Education Officer on behalf of 2020-2021 Sabbatical Officers.