students' union continue fight for tuition fee refunds

‘We need the Government to step up and do the right thing,’ says UCL SU Officer

‘We’re in a situation where people can get piercings and tattoos before they can have a face-to-face seminar’


The UK Government recently confirmed that all students who have not yet returned to campus-based teaching will be able to do so no earlier than May 17th when the majority of students no longer have classes to attend.

Previously Carol Paige, UCL Student Union’s Democracy, Operations and Community Officer, and Jim Onyemenam, UCL Student Union’s Postgraduate Officer, met with the Universities Secretary, Michelle Donelan, to discuss the return to in-person teaching and the possibility of tuition fee refunds. When asked when students would be able to return to Campus, Donelan stated that it was a top government priority.

The Government’s recent announcement has once again left students feeling ignored and frustrated. UCL’s Students’ Union has decided to take action by joining students’ unions across the UK for a digital day of action on 29 April.

The London Tab spoke with Carol Paige, UCL Students’ Union Democracy, Operations and Community Officer, to discuss their reaction to the Government announcement and upcoming plans for action.

Previously the Student’s Union met with Michelle Donelan (Universities Minister) to discuss the return to in-person teaching. Her answer was that it is a government priority. At the time, did you have faith in this statement? Or, like many of us, has your trust in the government to respond to student issues decreased during the pandemic?

We had a positive conversation with Michelle Donelan during our recent meeting, but the reality is that students have been at the back of the queue throughout the entire pandemic. Students paid their fees at the start of the year in good faith, and they’ve been seriously let down time and time again.

We can’t understand how the Government can prioritise getting 2,000 fans into Wembley for the Carabao Cup Final, but can’t find the time to work out how to get 12 people into a seminar room safely. It’s been the case all year.

What is the Union’s response to Michelle Donelan? Is there a way students can contact her independently to put pressure on the government?

We’ll share the letter we’ve written to her this week, but essentially we want to know what’s changed. Why is getting students back to campus at the earliest possible opportunity no longer a priority? The announcement this week that a “return to in-person teaching [will be] alongside step three of the road map, when restrictions on social contact will be eased further and the majority of indoor settings can reopen” means that university settings (seminar rooms, lecture theatres, specialist activity spaces) have been lumped together with pubs and restaurants in the reopening plans. At the very least it’s just insulting and shows where we all are in Government thinking.

You can certainly contact the Universities Minister directly ([email protected]) to share your thoughts, but you should also contact our local MP – who happens to be Leader of the Opposition, Sir Kier Starmer MP.

In your meeting with Michelle Donelan, you made a case for fee refunds and provided a report on student’s experiences this year. Was there anything in the report which surprised you? Has Michelle provided a response to this report?

We’re still waiting on a response to our research into students’ experiences this year, and more importantly the recommendations we made. The research uncovered some horrible truths about the past 12 months and confirmed what every student living through this year probably already knew.

Lots of attention has rightly been on the huge change to the way students learn this year, and for many, that has meant missing out on practical sessions that are essential to their degree. However, what isn’t talked about enough is the mental toll on students that studying through this pandemic – and paying for the privilege – has had. 60% of UCL students have said they’ve felt lonely every day or every week this year. It’s devastating.

UCL’s provost has announced that UCL will not directly provide tuition fee refunds. We are aware that the Students’ Union is focusing on putting pressure on the government to deliver on refunds – how are you going about this? How can student’s get involved?

We never expected UCL to fund tuition fee refunds – it’s just not affordable for UCL, or any university. We need the Government to step up and do the right thing – just like they’ve done for countless other sectors of the economy. We’re working with students’ unions from across the UK as part of SUAF – Students United Against Fees. We’re helping to lead this group and organise lobbying efforts on behalf of hundreds of thousands of students – as we believe collective power is the way forward.

We need to make the experience of students this year part of the national debate. It’s a scandal and it should be front-page news. For that to happen we need people who aren’t students to start taking up this issue – parents, academics, business leaders. Our whole society suffers if we lose a generation of students because the Government ignored them. We’ve got info and guidance, including letter templates, on our website here.

The Provost claimed that UCL has spent an additional £90million on online teaching, to justify UCL’s inability to directly provide refunds. Do you think the University has managed finances wisely and is justified in claiming that the extra expenses involved in online teaching almost make up for the low standards of teaching this year?

Hopefully, UCL will share more information on this as it’s certainly surprised a lot of people. The £90m has covered things like accommodation rent refunds, the reinstatement of the rent guarantor scheme, changes to the campus to make it covid-safe, the asymptomatic covid testing programme, shutting down and reopening their entire 200+ building estate etc. So it’s not a £90m bill for online teaching.

The question we should all be asking is why is the Government not footing the bill as they have done with other sectors in the UK? Luckily, UCL is financially stable but for smaller institutions, the pandemic has pushed them to the wall.

You’ve just announced that UCL Students’ Union will be joining students’ unions across the UK for a digital day of action on 29 April, how do you hope this will create change to improve the experience of UCL students?

Alongside our continued work with UCL and meetings with ministers and politicians – we’re joining students’ unions across the UK for a digital day of action on 29 April. Under the SUAF banner, we’ll be doing as much as possible to get the experience of students this year on to the national agenda.

The whole country needs to start talking about the scandal of higher education this year. We’ll be sharing the different ways you can join in through our social media and newsletters over the next few weeks. Get involved and get people talking about the worst year for students in a generation.

If you want to stay up to date with the Union’s plans and get involved you can follow them on Instagram @studentsunionucl 

Other articles recommended by this writer:

• ‘It’s just not possible’: UCL’s President and Provost dismisses tuition fee refunds

• UCL announces campus will re-open in September

• Almost £20k donated to UCL Lebanese student who was ‘two days from being homeless’