Image Description: The UCU stop tuition fees march.
This academic year has hardly been the best. UCU Strikesdisrupted Michaelmas and Hilary, and now Trinity is to be held remotely. It is not a stretch to argue that we have not got what we are paying for. This is what hundreds of thousands of students across the country think, so much so that a petition calling for a refund of tuition fees reached over 250,000 signatures last month.
There are many reasons to support the refund. First and foremost is the quality of teaching; for UK and EU students, the government set the ‘maximum’ tuition fee to £9,250, thereby showing that universities are able to charge less. Given that they valued the strikeless, in-person education at this maximum amount, it seems only logical that this most disrupted year should be worth significantly less.
It’s hardly like Oxford, with a total endowment of £6.1 billion, is stuck for cash
The issue is even more pressing for students from outside the UK who don’t receive loans, and worse still for those from outside the EU who have to pay up to £36,000 a year for this second-rate education. I understand that tutors can’t claim furlough because they’re working from home, but it’s hardly like Oxford, with a total endowment of £6.1 billion, is stuck for cash.
We have no access to the libraries the University is so proud of, the world-class labs which are so costly, or the same level of human interaction with world-class academics that helps Oxford rank so highly amongst the world’s universities. This goes without mentioning those who are simply not able to work from home due to individual circumstances.
In relation to the strikes, it is only right that they refund us for the lost contact hours, or else the strikes are ineffective. If the strikes do not negatively affect the University financially, and the truth is that they simply profit by not paying lost-wages, then they have no incentive to deal with the demands of the strikers. It is the staff and students who lose out, not the University.
In response to the petition, the Department for Education said:
“If any student is affected by strike action, universities are expected to take appropriate action and consider their obligations under consumer law and students’ consumer rights. This includes ensuring that a range of appropriate remedies and mitigations are available, to prevent or minimise the effects of any strike action upon their students, which may include making efforts to replace lost learning opportunities or financial compensation.”
“Universities are expected to take appropriate action…to replace lost learning opportunities or financial compensation.
But this is not something we students have seen. If there have been “efforts to replace lost learning opportunities”, they have been made by the striking individuals on the basis of their conscience rather than the University itself. Many lectures or classes have simply been made up for with handouts and reading lists rather than the teaching we came to Oxford for.
In a Q&A with The Oxford Student, Pro-Vice Chancellor Martin Williams refuted the claims that our education would be negatively affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, saying that “the University is applying very significant time and resources to ensure that students continue to be able to take advantage of our world-class academic teaching and meet the educational objectives of each programme” and that “high-quality teaching, assessments, and examinations” are going ahead, as well as “other University services (e.g. student welfare, career support) [which] continue to be provided even though staff are working remotely”. Overall, he says that “for these reasons, it is not appropriate for course fees to be reduced”.
It is simply impossible that the “high-quality” education the Pro-Vice Chancellor speaks of is going to continue as if everything were fine.
As nice as this sounds from the PVC, it is not recognisable to most students. The Faculty of Modern Languages, in an email sent to all First Year students, said that “the length and structure of classes and tutorials [may be] adapted”. For many of us, that means shorter tutorials and seminars and larger class sizes, thereby reducing the tutorial system that Oxford is famous for. In addition, the situation of University services, such as welfare, has received criticism due to a lack of communication and reassurance with the most vulnerable students (read Emily Manock’s article here). Through no fault of the university or individuals, many tutors and other members of staff are now having to juggle their professional life while also caring for others at home; it is simply impossible that the “high-quality” education the PVC spoke of is going to continue as if everything were fine.
Overall, the quality of education students have received this year has been exceptionally bad, and it is going to get worse through Trinity. This has proved to be particularly devastating for those who are Visiting Students or completing a one-year Master’s; their whole time at Oxford has been blighted by problem after problem, a ‘privilege’ for which we have paid thousands upon thousands of pounds.