Are universities neglecting existing students to protect their income?

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On Tuesday, 10 August, 2021, an earlier date than usual, students across the country received their A-level grades and found out whether or not they were accepted to their chosen universities. There have been complications across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some of these arising from decisions made by students last year in regard to their university acceptances. 

One year ago, no one knew what the academic year would look like as universities struggled to navigate online learning in a socially distanced world, leading to many A-level students deferring their places in the hope that COVID would be eradicated by 2021, and social distancing would be a distant memory. Many 2021/22 academic courses are now full as universities have had to come up with a solution. However, this solution neglects their current students that they made numerous promises to during the pandemic and prioritises their potential students and future income.  

Universities have a duty of care to their current students, especially during a global pandemic in which the situation is unpredictable.

For eligible courses that are full, the University of Leeds is offering £10,000 cash and free accommodation to students willing to defer their entry, while further south, the University of Exeter has made a similar offer to their medical students. What is most frustrating about this solution is that universities have refused to give compensation to current students, despite a lack of adequate teaching and cancelled field trips, claiming they do not have the funds or ability to do so. This has been highlighted by the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union’s #EaseTheFees campaign and similar campaigns across the country, including Bristol’s “Fee Justice Campaign”. However, the offers they are making to A-level students, who are not yet officially registered at the university, suggest otherwise.  

The fact that universities are more focused on incoming students, rather than the students they have promised to protect over the course of the pandemic, is incredibly frustrating. They are offering free accommodation to students after, not including Exeter, refusing to waive accommodation fees during the lockdown of January 2021, when the government told students not to travel to their term-time accommodation after the Christmas break. None other than Falmouth University did not waive fees throughout the entire lockdown period.  

Universities have a duty of care to their current students, especially during a global pandemic in which the situation is unpredictable. I feel it has become obvious over the months that UK universities, and the government—namely Michelle Donelan, minister of state for universities—have prioritised income over ample teaching. Whilst individual colleges, lecturers, and student unions have been trying to make a change, it is difficult when the higher powers refuse to let this happen for fear of looking bad.  

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In my hope for answers, I reached out the university for their chance to respond to this issue. The Falmouth and Exeter SU provided this response: “In the academic year 2020/21, the SU presidents established the effective Ease The Fees Campaign, based on students’ feedback, details of which can be found here on our SU website. This campaign will be furthered by all of us as the new sabbatical officer team. Since we started our roles, we have been, and will continue to be, liaising regularly with both universities within the context of the Ease the Fees Campaign, increasing university awareness of our stance. However, with the change in presidents, this is a good juncture to refresh the Ease the Fees Campaign—gather new feedback, reassess the current statement, and debate any potential changes linked to the new information regarding medical students, through the SU student council. If students feel strongly about this decision and the student council votes on making changes to our stance, then it will allow us to lobby Exeter University. At the SU, we must ensure that students are at the heart of our decision-making process.” 

Professor Mark Goodwin, deputy vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Exeter, said: “We’ve seen a significant upturn in the number of outstanding applicants prioritising the University of Exeter as their first choice for medicine this year. All medicine student numbers are set by the government to ensure that we can accommodate everyone in a way that provides a high-quality education and stimulating student experience, as well as safe and secure NHS placements. To maximise the choices available to our students, we are offering a range of options, including financial incentives, deferral, or studying a postgraduate programme, prior to students commencing their medical studies next year. 

“We’re committed to supporting the government to train more doctors, and our number one priority is ensuring the students that study with us enjoy a high-quality, safe, and fulfilling education, which has seen Exeter ranked in the top 10 in the Complete University Guide and no doubt contributes to our popularity as a first choice for so many.” 

This article is in our Opinions section. As such the views within are those of the contributor and do not represent an editorial stance.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Falmouth University, the University of Exeter or Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union.