Established in 1969, The Open University provides a unique service for prospective students in the UK and across the world. The OU primarily delivers distance learning, allowing students to take their modules selectively without the need of large facilities or face-to-face teaching in many instances. At the time of writing, the total cost of a history degree from the OU is £18,576. The total cost of my current history degree at UEA is £27,750, a difference of almost £10,000. Typically, it should be easy to understand why this gap in the fee exists; a traditional university must pay for facilities and staff to maintain them, accommodating student led programs and more extensive academic research. However, after the university closed in March due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and with the library closing after the nationwide lockdown was announced, many are questioning what exactly students are now paying for.
A petition to refund all students the full £9,250 for this year’s teaching has reached just over 325,000 signatures, and will now receive some kind of official government response. The description for the petition states that,with field trips being cancelled and the online resources having to be largely cobbled together, the quality of university teaching cannot be valued at its original amount. The petition also suggests that the drive for a refund is enhanced by the extended strikes this year. During the strike period, many classes had to be cancelled and staff were unable to reply to emails or have meetings with students. While it is easy to understand that offering refunds would be an unprecedented and incredibly risky step for universities to take, the palpable anger and disappointment felt by many students must also be understood.
The response of many institutions has been to state that the quality of distance learning is at least somewhat consistent with traditional campus learning and that ‘safety nets’ can be put in place to ensure student grade averages do not fall below their results in second year. However, this response seems completely lacking in respect for students. If distance learning is supposedly in keeping with the quality of the rest of the degree, why have a campus and physical facilities in the first place? Furthermore, even though safety nets will help in preventing students from being unfairly penalised for difficulties in finishing modules, how can it be possible to keep the same level of motivation in the current situation? For students in their final year, undergrad has effectively finished, and graduation may take place at a time when pupils may no longer be able to attend. The current situation will also sting for international students, a group upon which the university depends heavily, and who also pay far higher fees while being ineligible for tuition loans.With universities relying heavily on receiving the full tuition for every student, one proposed solution which has gained some support from university leadership is for the government to simply write off a portion of the year’s tuition loans. For domestic students, this would represent a serious gesture of goodwill in repairing confidence in the value of a university education. After all, for me, while university can represent an incredible experience, considering the amount of time and money students must invest in their degree, it has to represent ‘value’ as well as providing something significant for personal development. Unfortunately, as long as the lockdown continues, it can be neither.