Students and universities facing the challenges of lockdown as question over fees grow

Students from across our region say they feel they've been unfairly penalised by the impact of the coronavirus lockdown.

They've told ITV News Meridian that they've been left paying rent for homes they can't not live, while paying full fees for courses with no face to face teaching.

Universities say they've been working hard to provide "rich and productive" online learning, while recognising it's a "difficult time" for all students.

  • WATCH: Jamsheed Cooper shows us around his room

Jamsheed Cooper is an international Masters student who has paid nearly £20,000 to study at the University of Sussex this year. He's spent the last six weeks largely confined to a small study bedroom with a building site outside his window.

While many of his fellow students have cleared out their belongings from their hall of residence and returned home during lockdown, their rents cancelled for this term, he's stranded - and still paying £650 a month. He estimates there are around 200 other students in a similar position.

"I can't leave or fly out of the country. We're being forced to pay full rent despite most of the facilities not being provided. We haven't even received any indication of a discount - forget cancelling the rent. But this is what we are asking for especially as other universities have done it. "

The University of Sussex says waiving rents for students who are no longer living in university accommodation has cost them £5 million.

"When lockdown measures were introduced a fifth of our student residents needed to stay on our campus," they said. "Our staff have worked hard to ensure this is possible through providing essential services. We are providing 24/7 residential reception and security services, catering including a subsidised hot meals for all campus residents, a supermarket, regular cleaning and maintenance services. "

They also point to the fact that students who are experiencing unforeseen financial difficulties or expenses may be eligible to receive support from the University’s hardship fund.

Lucy Keegan, a 2nd year student at the University of Portsmouth lives in a privately rented student house. She's still paying over £400 a month in rent while she spends lockdown at her parents' home in Dorset.

She accepts she has a contract and needs to pay her landlord, but believes charging students who have lost part-time jobs full rent with no concessions shows an unwillingness to compromise.

"I'm not only paying tuition fees for a degree I am not getting the most out of but I am paying rent for a house I am not living in.

"This situation was never in the contract - nobody ever knew this was going to happen. And I think at this time we all need to help each other. "

  • Challenge of lockdown puts university costs up

The government has already said that students will have to continue to pay tuition fees of up to £9250 a year from the Autumn even if they can't go to campus or use university facilities.

Universities have always said that what students pay for is far more than just tuition and that their fees go towards running libraries, sports facilities, and other services too.

So some are asking why students should be asked to pay the full amount to sit in their bedrooms alone using their own electricity and wifi and no access to the "university experience".

  • WATCH: Prof Alex Neill in discussion with our social affairs correspondent Christine Alsford

Professor Alex Neill from the University of Southampton said: "They are getting as much of the university experience that we can offer - the library is an example of that. They can't go into the library but they can access all of the core library facilities online but no, they can't use the swimming pool, our sports facilities, that's undeniable."

Yet he doesn't think students are entitled to a refund.

"I don't have sympathy for the refund position because I see us having to run the university and our costs haven't gone down - if anything the massive amount of work we are doing to gear ourselves into delivering teaching and assessment in a rich and productive way online means our costs have gone up. There are all kinds of added costs there.

"I'm not talking just about Southampton but about the university sector as a whole."

But some question why students who are no longer receiving what they signed up for should be expected to foot that bill, particularly at a time when there is already ongoing debate over value for money.

  • Online teaching rated "poor quality"

Prolonged periods of strike action brought disruption to many courses this year with weeks of lectures cancelled for some students at more than 70 different universities.

Claire Sosienki Smith from the National Union of Students said: "We shouldn't be paying these tuition fees in the first place because education is a public good after all. But, seeing just how affected our students have been we are needing to seek government help now - and that means writing off the debt students have paid through loans - and for those who pay upfront we need a reimbursement of what they have paid."

Students are clearly feeling short changed and let down. A recent NUS survey found one in three students believe the online teaching they are getting as a replacement for lectures, seminars and tutorials delivered in person is "poor quality".

And one in five students say they struggle to access it anyway during lockdown due to digital poverty causing a lack of access to computers or the internet.

  • Universities adopting "no detriment" policy on final exams

All this is adding to a debate over exactly how final exams are being handled too. Many universities are adopting a policy called "no detriment' - which means their grade averages before lockdown are calculated - and factored into summer results. But others are focused more on extended deadlines, and opportunities for resits.

Some students believe all universities should be treating students in the same way - and want the government to issue guidelines.

Final year undergraduate Bandana Kirk said: "It's unfair that universities are allowing a safety net for some students and not others because at the end of the day we are going to go out and compete against these people for jobs."

"We need to take into effect the mental effects of this as well as the academic, " said fellow student Imogen Shaw, studying at the University of Reading.

"There's a lack of academic support and the library being shut. I'm lucky, I have a workspace at home but a lot of people share a bedroom with siblings. Just the anxiety and stress of the situation for everyone, I don't think that's being addressed really."

The University of Reading said: "We believe that our approach will help ensure standards and currency of our students’ degree programmes and their preparedness for work and further studies."

They said that a range of measures were being developed to ensure flexibility for students including extensions for coursework and dissertations. They are also allowing students to defer exams or retake exams if they feel that the outcome does not reflect their ability.

At least one university in the Meridian region - Southampton - say they expect far more appeals over degree grades this year. But they say they are doing everything they can to maintain the robust quality of their degrees and stay fair to students.

Prof Neill said: "When our students graduate they need to be confident - and employers need to be confident - that their degrees that they are graduating with are rock solid Southampton quality degrees.

"But we also need to recognise this is a really difficult situation for all kinds of students. A lot of them are very stressed about what's happening. These are unfamiliar circumstances - we are all learning as we go along.

"We've been through every course that we offer and looked at where we can simplify, where we can cut down, what sorts of things we can appropriately put online.

"Our principle is maintain the quality but do so in a way that makes life as familiar and manageable for our students and staff as possible."