These are unprecedented times that have and are having huge consequences on our personal wellbeing and learning. With two rounds of industrial action and a pandemic that has resulted in all teaching moving online, uncertainty around assessments, graduations, our very futures, we fully understand why you may be asking yourself: “Why am I paying for this?”
It’s time we have a frank conversation about your tuition fees. This is not something we can easily condense into a tweet or social media update This blog is to give you as much of a picture as possible so that we can update you on tuition fees, the University’s funding, refunds, and potential implications if tuition fees’ debt relief is ever be announced.
Over half of the University’s income comes from the tuition fees paid by students. While you can see a full breakdown of what your tuition fees pay for on the University’s website, the number of things that this funding contributes to is very wide-ranging, from your learning, to wellbeing services, IT support, and your Students’ Union as well. On campus, there is currently limited income from accommodation and none from hospitality outlets and other commercial centres like The Edge and the Sports Training Village.. Like many other organisations around the world, we are talking about a loss of millions of pounds, all of which will have a knock-on effect on planning and budgets for years to come.
This essentially means that a successful campaign to reimburse tuition fees without any mitigatory measures could damage the University’s finances immensely.
One of the things you do each year is elect a team of SU officers to act as your representatives to the University – that helps us shape and influence University decisions in your best interest. Our Education Officer and President sit in University Council – the highest decision-making body in the University - and they are therefore governors of the University: this means they have financial and legal responsibility over the institution. All Officers are Trustees of the SU, with the same set of obligations over our charity, making sure it is a going-concern for the future. Lobbying for something that we know is likely to have irreparable damage to the institution we work for, and have ultimate responsibility for, and for the experience of future students, is simply not something that we could hand-on-heart do.
That said, we know what affect this pandemic is having on you, and this does not mean that we should not act on this important issue because of this impact. Whilst lobbying the university on its own for a relief on tuition fees is not something that, as Officers, we can do – what we can argue for is a sector-wide, governmental plan to underwrite the gap in finances that this would give. This is because, in such a marketized model of higher education, we cannot function without the money that tuition fees provide: this is not unique to Bath but is a reality for the entire sector, which is why the most effective mode of action is to lobby nationally, directly to the government.
Of course, not all students’ fees are the same, nor handled in the same way. For a majority of students, fees are money that students never really see, and therefore a ‘refund’ would be a form of debt relief whereby a portion of the final debt is written off. The question becomes more difficult for international students and students who pay their fees upfront and not through Student Finance England. This would involve a very carefully crafted policy that puts every factor in the picture. Fundamentally, any policy must ensure that the institution remains financially viable, and that requires a guarantee that the government will underwrite any outstanding financial gap created.
The University is legally bound to perform its obligations as stated on its website, prospectus, and various contracts. Universities, however, generally have clauses in place that partially relieve them of their contractual obligations in cases of “force majeure” – things that the University is not in control of. This is Regulation 3.8 in the most recent Regulations for Students document at Bath, and such instances include (but are not limited to) industrial action, bad weather, or acts of terrorism. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA - an Alternative Dispute Resolution entity) has said that the force majeure clauses can apply to the consequences of COVID-19. Therefore, universities may be legally allowed to refuse any debt relief under the current circumstances, as the pandemic is out of the University’s control.
We believe that a national campaign directly to the government is the best way to represent your interests and secure the long-term future of the University and student experience. We are and will continue working closely with other Students’ Unions, the NUS, and the office of our MP, Wera Hobhouse.
There are a number of petitions and open letters emerging from both SUs and NUS. However, not all of them consider all of the factors we’ve outlined here, especially the issue of international students who pay much higher fees and often pay them up front. We are investigating different options we could take to mobilise a national lobby on this issue, making sure that we maximise the likelihood of it being successful, don’t overlook particular groups of students and don’t risk oversimplifying the issue and its solutions.
Let us know what you think, whether this has provided you with more clarity, and get in touch with us if you have any ideas on how we can move forward together in these challenging times.
We miss you. Stay strong, and stay safe.