English universities must consider partial fee refunds, says regulator

Universities in England must consider refunding some tuition fees, their regulator has said as it emerged that lawyers are challenging the legal basis of a two-week lockdown of 1,700 students in Manchester.

Amid mounting concerns over the plight of students at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), who were unable to leave their halls of residence even to get a Covid test, the vice-chancellor said those affected would be paid financial compensation.

The Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator, on Monday warned universities against a blanket refusal of partial tuition fee refunds. It instructed universities to look at circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

The prime minister’s spokesman, meanwhile, said he expected all students to be allowed to go home for the Christmas break.

The OfS intervention – and the offer from the MMU vice-chancellor, Prof Malcolm Press, of more than a week’s rent, plus a care package including food – marked a more conciliatory approach to students after thousands were forced into self-isolation and some universities went online-only, triggering anger. The University of Glasgow has made a similar financial offer to locked-down students.

UK university staff: how are online lectures going?

Jon Heath, a partner at Levins solicitors, however, accused MMU of operating “a shadow enforcement regime”. He is acting pro bono for nine students who want “urgent clarification” of how they were wrongly told on Friday that if they left their halls they “would be breaking the law”.

On Sunday evening the university put out a statement admitting it could not legally keep students in their accommodation but said they were “bright young adults, and we trust that they will do the right thing”. More than 140 students at MMU’s Birley and Cambridge halls of residence have tested positive for Covid, the university said.

The admission prompted some students to immediately pack a bag and return to their parents’ homes. Dan Johnson, 20, who is studying drama and contemporary performance, said seven of his nine flatmates left Cambridge halls on Sunday evening. They had been isolating for 11 days when the measure was announced, after one person tested positive on 14 September.

“Most have gone to stay with either parents or partners in safer accommodation. I think everyone’s coming back, they just don’t want to have to do another two weeks stuck in halls. We’ve all said we’d have been fine to do the two weeks if it weren’t for the fact we’ve already done two weeks quarantine on our own, which was due to finish today,” he said.

Heath questioned why MMU threatened students with disciplinary action. “We think this amounts to a shadow enforcement regime which goes far beyond the law,” he said.

Press told Sky News: “We were asked to ensure [students] would self-isolate because there had been an outbreak of Covid into halls of residence. We’re advising students on the rules, what they should do, we’re supporting them, but the idea that they’re not able to leave is just not true I’m afraid. Students are free to go should they wish to and a small number of students have gone home in a Covid-secure way.”

The OfS urged institutions to provide clarity and effective mental health support for students and warned it would pursue concerns about arrangements for teaching and academic support with individual universities and colleges.

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Nicola Dandridge, OfS chief executive, said: “Students have a right to good quality higher education – whether that is taught online, in-person or a mixture of the two.

“Students make a significant investment in their higher education and have rights as consumers. In considering whether to make partial tuition fee refunds, we would expect a university to consider the circumstances for each student rather than to adopt a blanket policy that refunds are not available.”

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) said it was dealing with more than 100 Covid-related complaints from students, most relating to teaching disruption last year, when studies went online. As the new academic term gets under way, the University of Aberystwyth became the latest of a small but growing number of institutions to suspend face-to-face teaching to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

Glasgow University expects to spend more than £3m after waiving student rentals and handing more than 3,000 hot meals to students ordered to self-isolate during a Covid-19 outbreak. After several large student halls linked to a cluster of 172 cases were locked down last week, the university said on Saturday it would waive a month’s rent for thousands of students and give each a £50 one-off subsistence bonus.

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