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Students shouldn’t pay tuition fees next year – the government should | Eric Lybeck | Education

The Covid-19 crisis has put universities in an impossible position: on the one hand, they need students to enrol in order to keep the doors open, staff paid and the nation’s research infrastructure going. On the other, no one knows what September will look like when students arrive back on campus. 

As Universities UK’s latest proposals outline, many universities will endeavour to open, possibly by introducing small “social bubbles”. Meanwhile, online and blended learning will be developed rapidly to give students a supposedly “world-class” experience. 

But students, when asked, say they rather wait for a full university experience. That does not simply include access to lectures, but the social life of living in halls and going to pubs. 

And will social bubble measures work? We need only look at any public park today to see how many young people are likely to follow this guidance. Some will follow to the letter, while others might bend the rules.

It is simply implausible that face to face teaching will not be considerably disrupted when any case of Covid-19 will necessitate entire seminars, modules, social bubbles and dorms to self-isolate for two weeks at a time. There will be rolling “local lockdowns” affecting different groups at different rates, with no track or trace infrastructure in place. September will be simply too soon, especially when universities are also expected to provide gold standard, full-fee’s worth online instruction.

Ultimately, Universities UK’s solution to this impossible dilemma is simple: promise the impossible and hope for the best. And what alternative do university leaders have when there is no higher education strategy from government?

We should fill that gap with a simple solution: eliminate fees all together for at least one academic year, 2020-21. This would focus universities’ priorities on what is most important: providing the highest quality learning resources for students in a safe and economical way. 

If there ever was a functioning market for higher education, it is wholly disrupted at present. Why should we retain the idea that the £9,250 price tag is the best way of distributing resources to universities in a pandemic? 

After all, the government has already admitted the market needs regulation, by reintroducing number caps, and insisting that universities consider the structural integrity of the sector rather than aggressively competing for students. 

If fees are waived, students will no longer feel let down by a subpar course, since we can all acknowledge universities are doing the best they can in an exceptional year. It is simply unfair that students enrolled this year should be the only cohort responsible for paying for this crisis.

Universities can in turn dedicate themselves to providing high quality online materials and aspects of campus infrastructure that need to be made safe and require in person attendance – for example, libraries, laboratories, some dormitories, especially for vulnerable and less mobile students. 

By removing the consumer relationship between universities and students, a tuition fee holiday would encourage a return to an older, collegiate model of higher education.

At some point in recent decades, politicians decided that only young people attending universities should be expected to fund the entire university sector and research infrastructure of the nation. Perhaps those politicians will use this time to reconsider. In the meantime, we must decide what are we going to do together as we move forward into an uncertain future.

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