Boris Johnson has failed to offer support for students being forced to self-isolate and whose courses are disrupted by the pandemic, insisting it is up to universities whether they offer tuition refunds.
The prime minister’s decision not to intervene comes as thousands of students receive no face-to-face teaching while some are urged to quarantine in universities’ halls of residence following outbreaks of Covid-19 on campuses across the UK.
Over the weekend, around 1,700 students were told to stay in their rooms at a Manchester Metropolitan University campus for 14 days after 127 tested positive for the virus – leading to questions as to why they are paying in full for £9,250 a year for courses.
Earlier this week, former Conservative minister George Freeman suggested that universities should “looks seriously” at offering their students “reduced fees if they’re not getting the full experience”.
Robert Halfon, the Tory chair of the Education Select Committee, also insisted the Office for Students and universities will have to look at “discounts” for those forced to self-isolate.
“The government could say that they believe discounts should be offered,” he said. “If you buy a product and you only get half of it or a quarter of it, you are entitled to get your money back.”
Pressed on the issue of refunds during a speech on Tuesday, Mr Johnson made clear he would not step in, saying: “That’s really a matter for them and their places of education. I hope that they can continue to get value from the courses they are being given.”
During his address on equipping people with new skills, the prime minister also vowed to end what he described as the “bogus distinction” between further education and higher education in expanding the ability to get student loans.
“We’ve got to end the pointless, nonsensical gulf that’s been fixed for generations, more than 100 years, between the so-called academic and so-called practical varieties of education. It’s absurd to talk about skills in this limited way,” he said.
“Now is the time to end this bogus distinction between FE and HE. We’re going to change the funding model so that it’s just as easy to get a student loan to do a year of electrical engineering at an FE college, or do two years of electrical engineering, as it is to get a loan to do a three-year degree in politics, philosophy and economics.”
He went on: “We face a once a century pandemic but now is the time to fix a problem that has plagued this country for decades. Now is the time to end the pointless, snooty, and frankly vacuous distinction between the practical and the academic.”