Have higher education courses during the pandemic offered students good value for money?
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the day to day lives of millions of people. This article seeks to address the somewhat unique position that university students have found themselves in during the pandemic and questions whether higher education courses during this time have been able to provide good value for money to students.
What is ‘value for money'
In order to consider whether students have received value for money, we must first consider what this actually means for university students.
In a quantitative sense, ‘good value' can be defined by statistics focusing on contact hours, entry tariffs, fees and ‘graduate outcome' i.e. the statistical likelihood of graduates finding desirable jobs with good salaries.
The true meaning of ‘value for money' is arguably much wider however and is largely driven by the student's expectation of university, the so called ‘university experience', and how well an establishment can balance this with a student's academic needs.
Contact hours and online learning
Research suggests that throughout COVID, the majority of university students have had most of their learning away from the campus, this being either through self-study or virtual platforms with an online tutor or lecturer. This is perhaps unsurprising.
Whilst virtual life has become common place for most of us, according to the Student Covid Insights Survey (SCIS) conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) covering a period between September and December 2020, 16% of students felt that they were unequipped to engage properly with online learning and half of students (prior to moving to fully online learning) reported that moving to fully online learning would have a negative impact on their academic experience.
At the time of the survey, 29% of students reported to be dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their academic experience, two-thirds of these reported that this was because of the quality of learning and learning delivery. On the 17 June, the ONS published further figures from the SCIS data collected between May and June finding that 61% of students who were in higher education prior to COVID reported the lack of face-to-face learning had a major or moderate impact on the quality of their course.
That being said, out of those students whose course was heavily dependant on vocational learning, around 70% of students had received 10 or more hours at clinical or vocational settings in the seven days before completing the survey.
This does not sit well with the argument that higher education courses are continuing to provide value for money however evidently the majority of students remain satisfied with their course.
It should also be noted that the percentage of dissatisfied students is around 12% higher than the average percentage of dissatisfied students for the three years preceding the pandemic (around 17%), although statistically significant, this is perhaps less of a difference than one may expect given the devastating impacts of the pandemic, this goes to show that a lot of universities throughout the country have made successful efforts to accommodate their students in such a difficult time.
Tuition fees and entry requirements
When asked about their fees if all university teaching was online from January 2021, half of students in the most recent SCIS survey, reported that they would be likely or extremely likely to request a refund for part, or all of their fees.
Despite significant calls for university fees in the UK to be reduced as a result of COVID, Government guidance stipulates that no fee refund should be expected by students where adequate online learning on support is provided, but individual students should seek redress where they have particular concerns about their experience of their course.
Entry requirements are however predicted to deviate somewhat in order to increase accessibility for students following the pandemic in an effort from the universities to stabilise their finances and facilitate higher education for more students.
Although not directly impacting the value for money of university courses, decreased entry requirements would allow certain students a chance at higher education in an institution that they may not otherwise be admitted to, hopefully increasing their financial prospects following graduation.
The University Experience
A large part of the University Experience is the social aspect of student life, largely arising from living away from home with other students and the increased independence that this offers.
During the pandemic many students have been forced into isolating in households that they are not fully comfortable in. Restaurants, bars, and the majority of other entertainment facilities have been closed meaning that ‘student life' throughout the pandemic has been incredibly different to the norm.
This has of course impacted the quality of life of students, and in turn has affected the value for money of their university experience. When asked about how satisfied they were with their social experience as part of the late 2020 SCIS, over half of students reported to be dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied; the main reasons were: limited opportunities for social or recreational activity (86%), limited opportunities to meet other students (84%) and limited access to sports and fitness facilities (52%).
The most recent SCIS has shown that life satisfaction scores among students have improved, returning to the same levels seen in November 2020 (5.2 out of 10), having been significantly lower in both January (4.6) and February (4.9) 2021. These scores remain very low however and students' average ratings of life satisfaction remain significantly lower than the average ratings of the adult population in Great Britain.
Financial and other considerations
A key consideration when considering value for money is the financial circumstances of the student.
Many students rely on maintenance grants offered by the Government to fund their accommodation however these grants are often far from sufficient to cover living expenses and accommodation. Many students have lost jobs, internships, and placements as a result of the pandemic and, according to a survey published in June 2020 by the City of London University, 41% of the 1,200 students surveyed were worried that they would not be able to afford food and almost 35% of students reported high or very high, levels of food insecurity.
There are of course strong correlations between financial security, social wellbeing and mental health, a survey by WONKHE and Trendence found that in October 2020, compared with May 2019, the proportion of students who felt lonely daily or weekly is much larger (50% compared with 39%), and a larger proportion of students do not feel part of the university community (50% compared with 40%). Additionally, a survey of undergraduate students by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has shown a majority of students reporting that their mental health worsened during the pandemic. This suggests that universities are not bringing the focus of combatting mental health into the teaching departments in a holistic way but leaving it to the overstretched and underresourced mental health support teams.
Clearly, students are not getting the most out of university, whilst financial and social struggles will impact the student's enjoyment of their time at university, such difficulties will inevitably also have an impact on the student's ability to learn.
Students' ability to complain
Should students feel that their experience has resulted in a significant disadvantage, they are able to raise their concern with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA). The OIA published a statement suggesting that a move to online delivery from face-to-face delivery is not valid grounds for a complaint so long as the provider has taken steps to mitigate the disruption of the change. Students should complain directly to the university in the first instance through their internal procedures before going to the OIA. Where a complaint is found to be justified, the OIA will make recommendations to the university to allow them to put things right and in some cases, this may include a partial refund of tuition fees.
The OIA and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) have both highlighted the fact that regardless of COVID and government restrictions, universities still have duties under consumer law and any disregard for the CMA's guidance or breach of consumer protection law will be enforceable. If the terms of the contract between the student and provider allow a wide discretion to vary the course or do not allow the student to terminate their obligations without penalty where they are adversely affected by a change, they are likely to be found unfair. This is something that will be determined on a case-by-case basis and will be very dependent on each individual institution's student contract.
The OIA will take these factors into consideration when investigating any complaint however, it has been made clear that the OIA's default view is that they feel the higher education sector has performed well given the unprecedented challenges they faced, and that students have not, on the whole, been disadvantaged by the adaptations made, a conclusion which is consistent with the published research.
The question of whether students have received good value for money is very much dependant on how we define ‘value'. The published research suggests that although some students are unhappy with the current state of learning and some students are struggling with other aspects of living away from home, the majority feel as though their course has been satisfactory and are satisfied with the online experience.
Looking at value from a wider perspective, the question becomes more complex. Undoubtably students have not experienced the same ‘university life' from a social point of view and the financial and social impacts of the pandemic have certainly negatively impacted the experience for many students.
Students themselves are divided on the matter, according to the Student Academic Experience Survey Report 2020 conducted by HEPI and Advance HE, the proportion of students who feel as though their current course offers good or very good value for money is very similar to those who feel their course offers poor or very poor value (39% compared to 31% respectively). It is interesting to note that these percentages seem quite similar to those in 2019 where 41% of students felt that their course achieved good value compared to 29% who did not. It is perhaps surprising that the contrast has not been greater and if students due truly believe that they have been at an unfair disadvantage, there are remedial options available to them as discussed above.
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