University students are appealing to the UK’s competition watchdog to help them win compensation for the teaching, campus facilities and accommodation many say they have been denied during the Covid pandemic.
A group of 20 student unions, including the National Union of Students and those representing students at the UK’s two largest universities, University College London and the University of Manchester, have written to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), calling on it to streamline the cumbersome appeals process that students must use to argue for refunds, and to issue clear guidelines on the grounds for appeal.
The student unions say their members have been “ignored” following complaints that spending most of the academic year learning online does not justify the £9,250 fees, according to the joint letter to the CMA.
“The pandemic has exposed contradictions of the higher education fee system for funding higher education in the UK, with students being forced to pay astronomically high fees while having no power to ask for refunds when they lose out,” the student leaders wrote.
“We are not dealing with isolated cases of low-quality teaching in some courses; all students’ educational experiences have been massively impacted by the pandemic, a fact which universities refuse to admit.”
A CMA spokesperson said: “This letter raises some important issues and we are considering the points made by the unions carefully.
“We are sympathetic to the situation many students find themselves in but this is a complex area legally and consumer enforcement action may not be the best or quickest solution for students’ problems. The issues caused by lockdown can vary a lot between different cases.”
University campuses have been closed to most students since the start of the year, and in-person teaching cancelled. Only those on practical or lab-based courses have been allowed back with the rest working remotely, with 17 May the likely date for full reopening.
The student unions argue that existing complaints processes, such as through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) in England, are too long and complex, and seem “designed to frustrate complainants into defeat,” while their rights under consumer law “are not clear”.
The complaint comes despite the OIA’s introduction of new rules allowing groups of students to make a joint complaint about their course and receive a blanket refund if their claim is upheld. The change was in response to receiving its highest ever volume of complaints in 2020 and fears that further claims could delay adjudication.
The student unions that have signed the letter are nearly all from the Russell Group of leading research universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, as well as Cardiff, Edinburgh and Queen’s University Belfast, with the CMA’s authority extending UK-wide.
Many students are unhappy that they have been denied access to campus facilities and endured changes to their courses, while term-time rooms which they had already paid for remained empty, the student unions said.
The letter also asks the CMA to intervene in cases where landlords operating private halls of residence have refused to refund students for rooms they have been unable to use during lockdown. As a result many have been left out of pocket relative to their peers living in university-operated halls, who have mostly received compensation.
The CMA said students could also refer to its earlier statements on consumer contracts and refunds during the pandemic when talking to their accommodation providers or universities.
Universities UK said: “Universities and their staff have done all they can to help students progress with their studies and meet their learning outcomes, offering a blended approach to learning wherever possible, however they have had to adapt their provision in line with government restrictions and public health advice.”