Can students claim money back if their university courses don't have face-to-face teaching?

Rupert Evelyn investigates if universities are planning to keep courses online

It is expected that most students will begin the Autumn term at university back in face-to-face teaching.

But there will still be some online learning – and the balance between that, and in-person teaching, is up to the university.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Tuesday morning that students shouldn’t be paying full fees if their expectations aren’t met.

He said the government’s guidance is “clear” and that all universities should revert back to “actually delivering lessons, lectures, face-to-face”, unless there are “unprecedented” reasons.

Asked if refunds should be given if that is not the case, he told Sky News: “I think universities have got to sort of stand up their offer to their own students.

“I think that they have the flexibility and the ability to deliver face-to-face lectures, and expect them to be delivering face-to-face lectures.”

Gavin Williamson. Credit: PA

Pressed further, he added: “I think if universities are not delivering, not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees.”

So what can students expect ahead of the start of the new academic year? And what can they do if their expectations around in-person learning are not met?

Will students be back to in-person learning?

Each university will decide on the balance of in-person and online learning, though it is understood most intend to return to face-to-face teaching as much as possible.

Universities UK told ITV News that students can “look forward to a much fuller in-person experience” this year.

A spokesperson added: “Universities are planning to maximise face-to-face opportunities for students in the autumn term, with in-person teaching, group study, practical work and extra-curricular activities including social events and sports – alongside the benefits of online lectures”

They added that universities are in close contact with public health teams to ready their response if a Covid outbreak occurs.

“All universities have refreshed their outbreak response plans and are in close contact with local public health teams, to ensure the safety of students and staff should the current public health situation change.”

Why are universities keeping at least some online learning?

Universities say some online learning will continue, in part, because students themselves have shown support for keeping remote access.

It’s also to stay prepared for any changes in the pandemic response in the UK.

The Russell Group – an association of 24 top UK universities – says “significant” investment has gone in to back the shift to “blended learning.”

“An element of online learning, which was also an important feature of university courses pre-pandemic, will continue,” the group said in a statement.

Credit: PA

It continues: “Both to enhance learning and also to provide the flexibility to respond to public health measures or local outbreaks where necessary while minimising disruption.

“We know that many students see benefits in keeping some lectures online, welcoming the increased flexibility in the learning process, greater accessibility and reduced anxiety about missing course content.”

What can students do if they feel the quality of their learning has dropped?

The first thing students can do is take it up with the university directly. But if that fails to produce a satisfactory outcome, there are other options.

The Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) listens to individual complaints and, should it meet their criteria, can arbitrate between the individual and the university.

In July, a student received a refund of £1,000 on their tuition fees after complaining to the OIA that they were not able to practise the skills they expected to gain from a specific module that was moved to online teaching.

Credit: PA

While the OIA can adjudicate on individual matters, the Office For Students (OFS) has powers to investigate the university itself.

If the OFS believes the quality of teaching has been impaired, they approach universities to consider taking action or even open an investigation.

What do students think?

University groups say students have shown support for some online learning.

Nathan Sharp, 20, who will study Occupational Health at Teesside University, told ITV News he feels the fees are reasonable for what he is expecting.

"As we’re coming out of Covid, I think that the payments are reasonable because my cohort are going in and getting that experience (face-to-face teaching)," he said.

"So it will be a change for us, but it’s a good change in the end."

One student talks about what he expects from September

Others, however, have protested what they see as a greater emphasis on remote classes.

Petitions have been signed by thousands at both Manchester University and University College London (UCL).

At the former, students argued they were not "adequately consulted."

Their petition states: "The University of Manchester has decided that blended learning should continue in the long term with only ‘interactive’ content being delivered in person.

"Students are unhappy with the decision as we don’t feel like we were adequately consulted on the matter, and particularly for humanities subjects, this change could result in lower contact hours per week as non-interactive lectures make up the majority of the content in many degree programs."

More than 9,000 have signed the petition, which started a month ago.

At UCL, students have argued they should be able to attend a lecture if they wish to, with an online stream available for those who prefer to continue that aspect of learning virtual.