Hundreds of thousands of students whose lives have been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic have signed a petition calling for tuition fee refunds, while landlords on many UK campuses are demanding students pay rent on vacated rooms.
An online petition to parliament, posted this week by a geography undergraduate at the University of Liverpool, had gathered nearly 250,000 signatures by Wednesday evening.
In the past two weeks British universities have switched to online or remote learning to counter the spread of Covid-19 and many have also closed their campuses. Some courses were also affected by weeks of staff strike action earlier in the year.
Related: UK universities face cash black hole amid coronavirus crisis
While many students acknowledge their universities’ efforts to continue delivering their education, others are angry they are not getting the university experience they were promised.
Sophie Quinn, 21, who started the petition, has returned from Liverpool to her family home in Maidenhead, Berkshire. “I feel being a final year student it’s affected me the most. Obviously there was lots of industrial action, which disrupted our studies. Now with this coronavirus, I just feel like everyone has been completely disrupted.
“Obviously it’s not any university’s fault, but we’ve missed out on quite a lot of things. We don’t have a graduation date to look forward to any more. A lot of people are demotivated to do the work. The tuition fees pay for libraries and upkeep of buildings. We are not allowed to use any of that. We are not getting what we paid for.”
John Cater, the vice-chancellor of Edge Hill University in Merseyside, acknowledged students’ concerns and called for the government to write off a proportion of this year’s tuition debt.
“Universities are working hard to teach, assess and graduate current cohorts of students, and we will all depend on the major tranche of tuition fee income we receive after Easter,” Cater said.
“But it is also the case that students’ learning and living experiences have been and will continue to be disrupted by the current pandemic. One strategy the government might wish to consider is to write off a proportion of this year’s tuition fee loan. This would be a considerable act of goodwill but one which would be of little or no cost to the state, neither now nor for many years to come.”
Writing off tuition debt raises serious issues about similar refunds for international students, on whom UK universities now rely for a substantial proportion of their income. International students are not entitled to student loans, and pay far higher fees than their domestic peers, so any refund would result in universities handing back cash they can ill afford to lose.
Universities UK, which represents 136 institutions, urged students who were not satisfied to complain to their university in the first instance.
Most domestic and international students have returned home where possible, with the Department for Education now advising those still on campus that it was safer to remain rather than risk travelling by public transport.
But many students have found their accommodation providers unwilling to end their contracts, forcing them to keep paying rent despite their university telling them to move out.
Related: 'Going home puts my parents at risk': UK students hit by coronavirus upheaval
Petros Passos, a first year student at Heriot-Watt University and resident of the Dobbie’s Point private halls in Glasgow, says most students have already vacated their rooms. However, Student Roost, which runs the halls, is still expecting students to continue paying rent for several weeks’ longer.
Passos has returned to London to support his mother, a key worker, and is struggling with rent payments. He has received emails from Student Roost warning it may send his case to a debt recovery agency, harming his future credit rating.
“It’s very stressful,” Passos said. “It’s very unfair and unethical to do this, they’re not worried about reputational damage because they can open another building and move on.”
The National Union of Students has asked the government to protect student tenants by banning evictions, waiving rents for at least three months, and releasing students from rental contracts for next year without incurring penalties.
A spokesperson for Student Roost said: “As these are unprecedented circumstances, we have made an exception to our normal cancellation policy to support our residents. We will be cancelling residents’ payments from 1 May if they plan to move out, or have already moved out, of their student accommodation.”