Opinion: Face-to-face lectures in Cambridge have been cut, so why haven’t tuition fees?

£9,250 for Zoombridge University? No thanks


Earlier this week, reports that Cambridge University will move lectures online until summer 2021 swept through not only my Facebook feed, but the country as a whole. Amongst a variety of students’ reactions across many universities, one stands out: are we really still expected to pay nine grand?

Despite this fundamental change in how university teaching will be conducted and the huge change in the overall uni experience, government ministers confirmed that there would be no change in the £9,250 annual tuition fee. Graham Virgo confirmed that the same would apply in Cambridge in a recent interview with The Tab: students will be required to pay the tuition fee in full to the university, just like any normal academic year. 

However, this academic year has been anything but normal. The announcement comes against the backdrop of increasing dissatisfaction with the price of a university education and the effects of disruption, whether as a result of the global pandemic or UCU strikes. 

In short, students aren’t happy. Over 340,000 people have signed a petition which demands that the government ‘reimburse all students of this year’s fees due to strikes and COVID-19‘. In the year 2018-2019, there were around 1.8 million undergrads in the UK, meaning that almost a fifth of students are frustrated with the lack of financial compensation. 

This has not just come about because of coronavirus – there are wider, more structural issues with higher education and the system of tuition fees, which are over three times higher than they were just a decade ago. And it’s not only students who are affected. UCU has campaigned against the marketisation of universities, a process which turns education into a consumer product, and has prioritised competition at the expense of stable staff contracts and the learning experience itself. In the debate that followed the tuition fees petition, Zamzam Ibrahim, the president of NUS, referenced the Consumer Rights Act. After all, if the government maintains this policy of marketisation they must also face facts – if the product has changed, the cost must too. 

Furthermore, tuition fees in England are much higher than anywhere else in Europe, and, just across the border, Scottish students studying in their home country normally don’t have to pay tuition fees at all. So, how can universities in England justify charging us so much more? 

The pandemic has only exposed this already serious problem: the university tuition fee model is broken. Graduates on average are left with £50,000 worth of debt, which only increases over time with exorbitant interest rates. And as of 2018, only 17 per cent of graduates are able to pay off their student loan in full. Saddled with this much debt is bad enough, but recent and upcoming graduates are also expected to be among the worst affected by the financial impact of COVID-19. With the search for jobs becoming even harder, having to pay in full for a year that was cut short only adds insult to injury.

Of course, just like every other sector, universities have been hit hard by the pandemic. UK universities are set to lose £2.6 billion this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Stephen Toope himself in his most recent email outlined the financial precarity of the university, and cited the “expected drop in international students” (predicted at 47 per cent nationally) as one of the many COVID-related reasons for this worsening situation. Many will consider this to be the wrong time to ask for tuition fee rebates or a reworking of the tuition fee system.

Yet, despite the mention of ‘generalised redundancies’ in another of Toope’s emails, this rebate must not come at the cost of pay to university staff, who have already gone on strike over concerns related to their pay and pensions. It is worth noting that Cambridge is the wealthiest university in the UK, with Oxford not far behind. In fact, in 2018, it was found that the combined assets of Oxford and Cambridge could pay for the tuition fees of every student, home and international, at UK universities for a year, leaving £3 billion to spare. Even in spite of the pandemic, the position of Oxbridge is very different to other UK universities; their financial flexibility could allow for reduced tuition fees without cuts in staff pay.

Surely there is a mutually beneficial argument, too, for at least a reduced tuition fee for this upcoming academic year? As many as one in five students are planning to defer their university places, and a financial incentive would perhaps encourage more to start in October despite the pandemic. The option of deferral, too, relies on being the student able to wait a year before going to university, and for many from more disadvantaged backgrounds, this is simply not an option. 

 

If some students feel like they had to start studying earlier, in a significantly altered university environment and sacrificing some of the university experience, surely it’s only right for the government to extend a hand of financial support. More places would be taken up, and in the short term this would mean more money for universities, which they need now more than ever. 

So where does that leave Cambridge? Of course, safety must be the priority, and as much as ‘academic rigour’ is a meme, it’s nice to know that our degrees aren’t going to be a total waste of time. But this is a fundamental change in the experience of university which only further adds to the existing crisis of the tuition fee model. As the pandemic disrupts life as we know it, it’s also an opportunity to take stock and evaluate whether the tuition fees system works. The student debt crisis shows that the current system of tuition fees does not.

As long as ministers in the House of Commons continue to insist that it should be students who bear the financial burden, that it should be those who will soon be entering an increasingly unstable post-COVID economy with fewer graduate opportunities, the injustice of extortionate tuition fees will grow ever more acute. 

In his interview with The Tab, Graham Virgo explained why tuition fees will remain the same: “We are not intending student education to be significantly disrupted. The decision has only been a decision about lectures. Lectures will still happen, they will be online, they will be recorded. All the other aspects of education will still continue. So we are still planning for supervisions, small group teaching, seminars, small practical to occur.

“I need to caveat all of that by reference to what the circumstances are at the time to the extent we are able to within the confines of social distancing, all the other teaching will occur face-to-face and they’ll be all the learning opportunities: access to libraries etc, they’ll still be available. It is only one part of the learning package that we’re planning to change and of course one that will kept under review. The intention is this will be the highest possible quality educational experience. We really want online lectures to be the best possible experience they can be and other types of learning, but we still need to work that one through”

A reconsideration of tuition fees is long overdue. Why are we, the students who have not been receiving the education that we were promised at £9,250, the ones who should be bailing the universities out? 

Feature Image Credit: Sebastian Ballard (Creative Commons Licence)