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In Conversation with Michelle Donelan, Minister of State for Universities

Michelle Donelan, Minister of Universities
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In a March 25 interview, Roar spoke with Minister of State for Universities Michelle Donelan about Covid regulations, as well as the options available to students who wish to petition for tuition refunds.


Roar: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. To start off: students haven’t felt their expectations have been met this year. At King’s, we were promised in-person teaching, which for the most part wasn’t possible due to case surges and subsequent lockdowns. Could you set some expectations for students returning to London after the April holidays, and for the coming months?

Minister Donelan: As students will know, we got back, from January, those on critical key worker courses – allied health, social work, teacher training, etc. – and then from March 8 we said that practical and creative can go back, so right through from art to STEM subjects. The rest of the student body, we are currently reviewing. We always said that we would review it at Easter and that we would give at least one week’s notice to both students and universities.

We’re as eager as students are to get them back as quickly as possible, but we’ve got to do it based on that health data, and we’ve got to be cautious. It’s part of the Prime Minister’s roadmap, and we’ve said throughout that we want this current lockdown to be the last one. So it’s important that we go at the right pace – but we will be giving clarity within the next couple of weeks.

R: And with the Prime Minister’s new road out of lockdown, how is the government committed to keeping students safe when they return to campus and halls, be that in the coming weeks following the break or in September for next academic year?

MD: You’ll know that universities have a great deal of Covid-secure measures in place, from one-way systems to hand sanitiser, et cetera, and they’ve invested heavily in that. But what’s different, and what has been different this term to the autumn term, is the robust testing system that is in place. And we are offering all students that are back at their university accommodation to test a week with lateral flow tests.

My key message to all students would be one of urging them to engage with that testing programme as a key way that we can break the transmission of the virus and prevent outbreaks.

R: And is the government also committed to continuing to support universities even once all stages of the roadmap have been completed and we get back to, dare I say, the old normal?

MD: Yeah, absolutely. I work extremely closely with all universities. I have a higher education task force that we kept throughout this pandemic, and we continue to meet at least every two weeks to discuss these issues. And one of the things we’ve been working on with universities and with Universities UK – that’s the largest sector body – is not only how universities will potentially add in some additional face-to-face teaching to compensate […] but also how they will address the “catch-up” of the university experience.

Students’ unions have done a fantastic job over the last year trying to make up for that, but it hasn’t been the same. And we’re working with universities in what more they can do to enrich that university experience when those restrictions allow for it.

I’m very passionate about mental health provision for students, and that was the case before the pandemic, but it’s even more important now. We have a working group on this with the higher education sector; we also have a mental health action group across all education areas. […] We will continue to urge universities to prioritise mental health, wellbeing, and ensuring that their communications to students assist with that.

R: What would your advice be to students to help them stay safe as lockdown measures continue to lift? You’ve mentioned that you’d urge students to make use of the testing facilities at their halls once they come back, but there are many students living elsewhere in the UK or internationally who are attending seminars via Teams.

MD: Well, first of all, I would just acknowledge how difficult and challenging it has been for students over the last year, whether they’ve been studying remotely overseas or remotely in the UK. And it hasn’t been, as we’ve said, that normal university experience. My advice would be to engage in a testing programme if you’re here, or if you’re in another country that is offering that testing programme, and to abide by any restrictions that are in place in the location that you’re at.

[…] We’re already vaccinated over 20 million individuals across the UK. We’re on a good track, but we’re not out of the wood. I think there’s about five thousand individuals in the hospital [with Covid] still. So we have to be cautious throughout. But my message as Universities Minister is that, no matter what, our priority is to ensure that you have a good quality education, that quality, quantity, and accessibility doesn’t drop – and we will continue to work with universities to facilitate that.

R: Speaking to quality of education, many students, especially at Kings, have been calling for either full or partial refunds to their tuition fees this year as the result of reduced or fully cancelled in-person teaching. You recently told the Evening Standard that students who want a refund should complain to their university or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). I wanted to ask: do you believe a refund policy should be introduced or discussed? What is your opinion on the matter?

MD: Yes, so there is that process in place that you pointed out where students can make a formal complaint to the university, and if they’re not happy they can go to the OIA, which can lead to a fee refund. We saw some case studies published by them a few weeks ago – one student got £5,000 refunded, for instance. Also, if a student doesn’t want to do that, they can go onto the Office for Students (OfS) website. There’s a notification process that they can put in, and the OfS are doing deep dives into universities and asking some questions and follow-ups on those and concerns that are raised [sic].

But in general, on the tuition fee issue, it has been a really difficult time. I can’t say that enough, because it has, but one of our sort-of missions throughout this entire year has been to prioritise education, and we’ve managed to do that, including in higher education, where teaching and learning has continued throughout this year. Yes, it’s been different, but we’ve also seen some innovative and amazing ways of using technology, some of which actually improved learning and will enrich the way that higher education is taught in the future.

And I must thank all of the higher education staff, from the lecturers to the support staff, for the work they’ve done in this area. But we don’t set the minimum level of tuition fees, we set the maximum as a government. Universities have all chosen, however, to continue to charge that maximum. So in return, we do expect that the quality of teaching is there, that the quantity is there, and that it is accessible. And like I said, if a student feels that isn’t the case, there is that process in place they can explore and go down, either via the complaints process and then the OiA, or they can do a notification to the OfS.

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