Hundreds of thousands of students who have missed out on their education due to the lockdown have been urged to sign up to “mass action” to win compensation.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has demanded debt relief and compensation for those whose studies have been disrupted since university campuses were forced to close.
Universities are facing significant financial challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic and they will struggle to foot the bill without Government support, the union says.
Claire Sosienski Smith, NUS vice president for higher education, said: “Even if students complain to their individual institutions, how will universities afford it when the UK Government haven’t announced a single penny of additional funding to support them?”
She added: “We know that there are students who can’t access their education right now.
“Many should be receiving training and education in subjects that can’t be delivered remotely, others are paying tuition fees while working on the NHS front line, and many disabled students require reasonable adjustments that just can’t be catered for through online learning – this action is for those students.”
It comes after the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE) said this week that “a blanket refusal to consider tuition fee refunds in any circumstances is not reasonable”.
In a briefing note, the watchdog said: “There may be groups of students that are particularly affected, and providers should take steps to identify those groups and address their issues.”
NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim said the issue could not be reduced to a series of individual problems.
“It’s a total betrayal of trust to the thousands of students who are now facing lifelong debts for a once-in-a-lifetime education they haven’t received,” she said.
“We’ve warned the UK Government and education leaders repeatedly that the scale of student anger is too large to be handled through existing local processes. But they have not listened to our concerns, so NUS’s job is to take action in the best interests of students.”
Ms Ibrahim added: “We were told students were going to be ’empowered consumers’ but actually, when something like this happens, we feel we’ve got less rights than if we’d booked an Airbnb.”
The NUS hopes to work with the Government but is not “ruling out a more formal action if necessary”.
In a statement to the PA news agency, a Department for Education spokeswoman noted the autonomy of universities and said there is an established process in place to assist students.
“Students should first raise their concerns with their provider and any unresolved complaints at providers in England and Wales should go to the Office for the Independent Adjudicator, which has published guidance on this issue,” she said.
The call for students’ support comes a day after England’s chief medical officer warned that the UK will have to live with the threat posed by Covid-19 well into 2021.
And it comes a week after a Universities UK (UUK) poll of 92 universities found that 97% of institutions planned to provide at least some in-person teaching to students at the start of term this year.
Vice-chancellors warned in April that universities are likely to face “financial failure” amid the coronavirus crisis – Ucas has predicted tens of thousands fewer students could start university this year – without emergency Government funding of at least £2 billion.
A UUK spokesman said:“Complaints procedures within individual universities exist and should be the first port of call for students who are not satisfied with the support they received.
“This includes for students who have difficulty continuing with their learning, e.g. because of illness, caring responsibilities or lack of access to IT. Every university has an established process for managing complaints, and will be mindful of extenuating circumstances.”