Hundreds of international students at three major London universities are refusing to pay their fees because they say learning mostly in their bedrooms has not justified prices of up to £29,000 a year.
More than 300 students at the Royal College of Art, two-thirds of them from abroad, launched a tuition fee strike in January, the Guardian has learned, potentially withholding around £3.4m in fee payments, in an attempt to force the university to issue refunds for the past year.
The international students, who pay £29,000 a year for a master’s course at the RCA, took action despite fearing their visas may be revoked. After a letter from the college threatening them with suspension, some backed down, but the vice-chancellor, Paul Thompson, confirmed in a meeting on 4 March that 93 students had still not paid. Strikers were told in an email this week that they would be suspended if they did not pay or come to an arrangement with the university by Monday.
The students are angry that the institution actually increased its fees this year during the pandemic, despite vital practical work in studios and workshops being curtailed, and say they have not received the immersive experience they are paying for.
Meanwhile, at Soas University of London, where overseas undergraduates pay £18,630 a year, about 100 students are withholding fees; a strike is also under way at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Syahadah Shahril, a master’s student from Singapore at the University of the Arts London, and chair of a student activist group Pause or Pay, has helped to organise the fee strikes and plans to launch a pre-strike call on Monday targeting international students at her own institution.
Shahril says students of practical arts and design courses at UAL and the RCA have struggled without sufficient time in studios and workshops. “I’ve seen students who have been forced to do metal smelting at home and burned their hands, or who have been painting in small unventilated spaces,” she says. “Students are scrambling to rent expensive private studios they can’t afford.”
She hopes that the strikes in London will galvanise overseas students across the country. “International students have lost so much and we are showing that we have a voice too,” she says.
With many thousands of students at British universities still studying alone in their bedrooms, often paying for accommodation they cannot use, calls are growing for the government to give a fee rebate. A new petition demanding tuition fee compensation for international students has received nearly 25,000 signatures in just over a week.
Most UK students’ fees, of £9,250 a year, are paid to universities by the Student Loans Company, so they cannot withhold tuition moneys without dropping out. However, high fee paying international students and master’s students pay direct, and are showing that they can protest by hitting their universities’ coffers.
Isaac Jones (not his real name), a master’s student at Goldsmiths, says: “The international students I am speaking to are very aggrieved. They have received a massively diminished experience and they are unhappy about being treated like cash cows.”
The students are hoping universities will not report protesting international students for any breach in their visa requirements, because they will not want to damage their reputation abroad.
Jones says protesters at Goldsmiths think the university should be lobbying the government for a nationwide refund. “If we are to accept the government’s view that higher education is a product that must respond to market logic, then how can it be argued that we should pay the same for a diminished experience?” he said.
A German student at the RCA, who has been refusing to pay the second half of her £12,600 fees for the year since January, says students are dissatisfied. “It is incredible that the fees have actually gone up for us during Covid.” The student says: “As a practising artist, the piece of paper at the end is not why I’m here. I came here to develop and grow and I haven’t been able to do that in my bedroom. I need a studio and facilities that I just don’t have at home.”
The RCA is not acknowledging the strike publicly. However, at a Zoom meeting with students on 4 March Thompson confirmed that a priority issue was how the strike would be resolved, adding that if the college let students pay “what they felt was right” it would lead to “job losses … a curtailment of what we are offering at the moment” and would be “a race to the bottom”. He said any student who could not pay their fees would be helped by the college.
A spokesperson for the college said that “around 50” students had fees outstanding but that this was “entirely normal for this time of year”. They said: “For students facing financial difficulties, we have increased hardship funding and we have made every effort to provide payment plans for those struggling to pay tuition. While arrangements for online learning and Covid-19 contingencies were communicated to students prior to joining the college, we have ensured that anyone wishing to pause their studies to take a leave of absence has, without exception, been able to do that.”
An economics student from the US, who is withholding fees at Soas, says: “I’ve faced anxiety and crushing loneliness”. The student said that the strike was “straightforward and reasonable. We made the decision to come to Soas because of what was promised and those things were never provided. The problem is that straightforward, and reasonable demands tend to only make sense to the government when businesses are asking for financial relief.”
Prof Adam Habib, director of Soas, says: “I do think that students need some support. The question is who provides that? If you cut universities’ income by forcing institutions to provide it then you will see universities going into insolvency. The government should have the courage to have an honest conversation about this. There is a debate to be had about whether you should be providing big business with support, or whether you should be providing support to young people.”
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, says it takes courage for international students to protest, because their visa status and their “dependence on continuing institutional goodwill” makes them vulnerable.
However, he says: “If this is targeted to demonstrable grievances or injustices – for example students not receiving advertised or guaranteed provision – and it happens in highly visible institutions such as the London-based institutions, it could resonate around the country and also have powerful effects abroad.”
UAL says the university reopened studios and workshops on 8 March, the earliest legal date, and adds: “We have not been informed of any intention to launch a strike but we make it clear to all students that we have established procedures for making complaints and raising concerns or issues.”
Goldsmiths says: “We appreciate the last year has been incredibly difficult for our students. We have launched a range of new funds, bursaries and initiatives to provide support. Our warden, Prof Frances Corner, has also written to the universities minister asking the government to offer more financial support to students, including making additional student hardship funding available and writing off this year’s tuition loans.”