UK university applicants rapidly needed certainty. They didn’t get it

Fee caps should be dependent on what universities can actually provide in a pandemic, says prospective fresher?Nélson Fernandes Serr?o

June 19, 2020
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So, for UK school-leavers, the die is now cast. Yesterday – 18 June – was the deadline for deciding which, if any, of their offered places to accept.

This has never been an easy decision to make given the range of unknowns. Will I get the grades? Am I going to enjoy it? Can I afford it there?

This year, however, the decision has been even more of a leap in the dark given the ongoing uncertainty about what universities are even offering. Will there be a freshers’ week? Will teaching take place in person or online? Will students even be allowed to be present on campus?

Of course, students don’t expect everything to be nailed down: we don’t yet know what the epidemiological situation will be in September and onwards; we don’t yet know whether or not the UK will experience a second wave of infections; we don’t yet know whether international travel will be possible to anything like the levels seen before the?worldwide?lockdown. However, a little more certainty would go a long way in terms of allowing students to begin to plan with some confidence.

Specifically, UK governments and universities must commit to ensuring “value” throughout. More or less all universities are charging the maximum permitted tuition fees in their jurisdiction, but if that price tag is to remain, it’s time for some assurances. Will face-to-face teaching, of any kind, be offered? Will contact be made between tutors and students on a regular basis to review performance? And what about the wider aspects of the student experience that previous generations have taken for granted?

Admittedly, we are seeing more and more universities commit to a mode of teaching. In a Universities UK poll released this week, 97 per cent of the of 92 universities polled said that they will provide some in-person teaching at the start of term, with 87 per cent planning to offer in-person sporting, fitness and wellbeing activities.?

I understand that universities cannot afford to sustain big reductions in their income from tuition fees, but the question nonetheless stands as to whether it is fair to continue to charge the full tuition fee for a diminished experience. Universities and the government must work earnestly over the coming weeks to balance these competing interests and come up with a settlement that works for students and universities alike.

I believe that the tuition fee cap should be dependent on what the university actually delivers. The tests would include whether teaching will be face-to-face, whether advertised leisure activities will remain available and whether universities have put in place support frameworks to mitigate a second wave of the virus further down the road. Only if all these tests can be met should universities retain the option of charging the full fee; for each “failure”, the cap should be gradually reduced – allowing students to be duly compensated for a ‘diminished’ experience, but allowing universities the option of retaining full funding.

One of the biggest implications of the continuing uncertainty will inevitably be a reversal of years of progress in improving social mobility. Being the first person in my family to finish secondary school, let alone apply to universities and hold an offer from the University of Oxford, I know the struggle faced by many of my disadvantaged peers, whose lack of role models and familial expectations make university a hard sell even in a normal year. The fact that they have missed a substantial part of the final year of their school education means that gap between their achievement and that of the richest students will only grow wider. Some degree of catch-up will be necessary; the question being as to who will pick up the tab?

You might argue that those who don’t like the prospect of online teaching or who think that their relative achievement has been adversely affected by the lockdown should simply defer. But, for many poorer students, deferral is just not a credible option since they lack the resources to stand on their own two feet financially and lack the connections to get funded experiences and internships.

It is also fair to say that universities would not welcome the sight of large numbers of their expected entrants withholding their tuition fees for another year. But if they want students’ fees, they should have done the right thing by them and nailed down their offers more quickly. Yes, they are now answering some questions, but with the Ucas deadline now having passed, it is a case of too little, too late.

Nélson Fernandes Serr?o holds an offer in philosophy, politics and economics at Trinity College, Oxford. He is a freelance politics and current affairs writer for TLDR News.

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Reader's comments (4)

The comments are naive in the extreme. Clearly has a lot to learn
Perfect for an Oxford PPE then. Nelson can hone these qualities there to perfection. The "world-leading" holders of such a degree and their exceptional abilities are currently on show in the UK. I am running out of popcorn.
The writer seems to expect universities to deliver face to face teaching and on campus sporting activities, whilst simultaneously "mitigat[ing against] a second wave of the virus" if they are to retain entitlement to full fees. Leaving aside the contradiction inherent in that expectation, universities are doing the best they can to deliver as fully rounded an experience as possible under extreme circumstances. The suggestion that they be penalised financially for this is, as has already been said, rather naive; forcing universities to cut courses, make staff redundant, and possibly go bankrupt, is hardly helpful to anyone.
The costs of delivering on line can be higher than delivering face-to-face. Universities need government funding to help but there has to be a good case for UK to move to a model that decouples research from having large numbers of UG. Surely, funding research at 100 percent, research infrastructure schemes for Universities benefiting their region and increased funding for research is the way forward? University funding became very unstable following the successive Thatcher, Blair, Cameron/Clegg, May policies-now this will need fixing but the fix will not be provided by an ill-perceived market.

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