England’s universities minister has rejected calls for discounts or refunds for all students with courses disrupted by Covid-19 restrictions.
Michelle Donelan told a committee of MPs she expected the quality of courses to stay high, “despite it being online potentially or a blended offer”.
She said online provision could be “innovative, interactive and dynamic”.
But she said it was up to universities to set fees and decide whether what they were offering merited a discount.
Ms Donelan told MPs: “I have been very clear with universities, I expect the quality to be there and the standards to be there – it’s important to note that often online learning is more expensive than traditional learning if done correctly and if done innovatively.
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“University students are consumers, they have consumer rights.
“If they feel that their quality of education isn’t there, that the quantity isn’t there, they can go through the process of first of all complaining to their university and if that’s not successful then go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator [for Higher Education].”
But chairman of the Education Select Committee Robert Halfon said that would not be easy in practice.
“Should we not just give students an automatic discount where they’re not getting a significant amount of face-to-face learning with lecturers or tutors or whatever it may be?”
Ms Donelan said the adjudicator was the “proper complaints process” available to students.
“I do not accept that across the board, the situation is that students are getting poor quality learning, in fact we’re seeing innovative and examples that I’ve seen first hand.”
She added: “The government only set maximum fees, it doesn’t set a minimum so it is up to universities if they want and believe that they’re not providing adequate learning that is up to that value, they could themselves issue a discount, the government doesn’t have the final say on that.”
Asked by Mr Halfon whether it was correct that some 3,000 UK students were currently self-isolating, Ms Donelan said she was was not able to confirm this and that “that figure is constantly changing as I speak”.
“However, it is a really small proportion of students per university and we want to keep it that way.”
Students’ mental health
The minister was pressed about students’ mental health, with MPs expressing concerns about students being lonely and isolated if they were not able to socialise in the normal way.
She said mental health needed to be “a priority at this time” and said she spoke regularly to vice-chancellors about how they were checking on students’ wellbeing.
Ms Donelan also said she hoped to ensure the university drop-out rate does not rise this academic year.
She told MPs the “vast majority of students are abiding by the rules” surrounding Covid-19 and stressed it was important not to “demonise” students for any rises in positive tests.
Asked about what would be happening about exams next summer, Ms Donelan said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson would make an announcement in the Commons.
She said exams were “the best form of assessment”.
She also said she did not think this year’s cohort of A-level students would be disadvantaged by having to compete for university places with students who may have received generous centre-based grades this summer, saying deferral levels were only up by 0.2%.
“I’m confident that they’re not competing with a large cohort.”