Parties, Fines and Value for Money refunds for fee-paying UK university students

STUDENT parties in Nottingham and Norwich that saw undergraduates fined £10,000 under new emergency legislation as well as local infection rates rising strongly where returning university student cohorts muster made the news headlines during the early weeks of Autumn term. As has the migration to online and blended learning instead of group gatherings in lecture halls, seminar rooms and student unions.

Yet, amidst all the sound and fury, the elephant in the room remains that some fee-paying UK university (home) students are no longer getting Value for Money (VfM) from their universities in a pandemic era where learning has often fully or partially migrated online. Despite the Office for Students (OfS) putting a lot of weight behind its regulatory pressure upon universities to provide VfM, this dog has yet to bark.

While for their annual fee of £9,250 students currently appear to have little formal legal redress against university contracts, it is self-evident that students at some universities are currently only receiving some of  the educational experiences they could usually reasonably expect of university life. Especially so where universities have failed to plan sufficiently for the impact of Covid 19.

There is a much stronger case for ex-gratia annual degree fee refunds on a VfM basis. Disappointingly, the issue of refunds has yet to be effectively grappled with by government, the regulators or University Councils.

University Councils are the body responsible for various crucial corporate governance matters including these ex-gratia refunds – should they arise - dictated by these strong VfM university experience and service shortfall decisions. The fact no University Council has yet to publicly address this corporate governance VfM issue is NO surprise according my new book (with Andrew Kakabadse and Filipe Morais) The Independent Director in Society: Our Current Crisis of Governance & What To Do About It.

Indeed, if the UK university fish rots from the head down then many of the current strategic, health, pedagogic and financial planning issues impacting relationships with fee-paying UK University students – and their wider communities - thrown into further sharp relief by the pandemic can be squarely laid at the door of these poorly-functioning University Councils.

The extensive survey we commissioned for The Independent Director in Society was supported by the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) and the Association of Heads of University Administration (AHUA). It finds:

90 per cent of Councils have over 15 members while nearly half have over 20 members making them way too big to be effective.

Insufficient time is spent by University Council members: 75 per cent have 6 or less meetings per annum while 80 per cent last for 3 hours or less.

Only 50 per cent of University Council members venture onto campus to actually visit colleges and faculties to understand the issues being faced by staff and students. 

Nearly 1 in 5 of University Council do not consider that strategy - including the financial, planning, health & associated risk of CoVid 19 as well as how to deal with it - gets enough attention.

Council members time is primarily spent trying to understand a complex business and preparing for meetings instead of contributing to finding strategies and solutions to deal with challenges.

In the context of severe financial pressures across the sector and existing evidence that various individual universities are currently vulnerable to possible insolvency or bankruptcy, in the absence of government or OfS regulatory leadership, the urgent question is how University Councils are going to respond?

Our book provides many worthwhile and relevant suggestions, recommendations and, even, possible answers for University Council governance.

Photo credit: Eddie Mitchell