“It is vital for [the] UK government to provide at least partial compensation,” said the campaigners, who are international student representatives at 10 Russell Group universities.
“It is vital for [the] UK government to provide at least partial compensation”
They added that while universities have “failed to provide adequate teaching”, many cannot afford to refund students and so the government should step in, noting that “abrupt[ly] changing UK government guidelines” had “severely impacted their university experience”.
“In our understanding, based on university [discussions], they can’t do it by themselves. They have to get more funding from the government,” said Jian Feng, international student executive officer at Leeds University Union and one of the students heading the campaign.
“And we also know the government has given millions to support the university emergency hardship fund. But it’s really hard to apply for these hardship funds – it is literally [only for those] really, really in an emergency, [only those who] have no money to spend can apply… So it actually didn’t work well for lots of our international students.”
Reaching the threshold of 10,000 signatures in a matter of days means the government will respond to the issues highlighted in the petition.
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for higher education has also published its second set of complaint case summaries arising from the impact of coronavirus.
Along with cases raised around paying rent for accommodation not used by students and “cumulative” disruption from industrial action and the pandemic, the report highlighted cases of providers unable to deliver important practical experience.
One case – that the agency decided was justified – was from a final year international student studying medicine who missed out on clinical placements between passing their exams in January and their graduation in July.
The OIA agreed that cancelling the clinical placements was unavoidable, but the provider “did not consider the impact of the lack of expected clinical placements on the student’s experience, and the significant disappointment and inconvenience this caused”.
It added that the provider was unable to explain why students paid higher fees for the final years – in this case the student paid £38,000 in final year fees, on top of visa costs and the expenses of living and studying overseas – when clinical placements were funded by Health Education England.
The body decided that the student’s experience as a final year medical student “fell well short of what they reasonably expected”, which was exacerbated by the lack of clarity around the significant increase in tuition fees during the final years of study.
“[The student’s experience] fell well short of what they reasonably expected”
It recommended that the provider pay £5,000 compensation for “the severe disappointment and inconvenience they experienced because their final year of studies was less valuable to them than they expected”.
However, Feng explained that students in other courses, such as social sciences or humanities, would most likely find it harder to get similar compensation.
Students have told the BBC that coronavirus restrictions have stopped them being able to access practical elements of other courses, including journalism, where students expected to be able to use state-of-the-art broadcast studios.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan has in the past urged students to escalate any complaints to the OIA, and if necessary students can take legal action against universities on the basis of consumer rights laws.
The department for education has also previously said it only expects full tuition fees to be charged if “online courses are of good quality, fit for purpose & help students progress towards their qualification”.
For Feng, it seems that the government is “staying away from the responsibility of giving money for support”.
“If you don’t give them money how can the university support us,” he said.
“A lot of our international students just feel like [they] study everything online. We don’t get a chance to study in the UK to experience the cultural difference, the campus and make new friendships. I think it’s not just about the curriculum.
“Studying abroad, speaking a second language in a foreign country, these experiences can shape the future our younger generation of international students and we just lose this experience. That why in the past, we were happy to pay for that because we really want these experiences… but this year we just can’t have it.”