Students are facing an academic year like no other, with thousands up and down the country already forced to self-isolate.
Packed lecture halls are being replaced by Zoom calls as universities scramble to contain coronavirus cases.
And with students paying up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees, universities are bracing themselves for a wave of refund requests. But will families get their money back? We ask the experts…
New normal: Students wear face masks outside Oxford University’s Wadham College last month
What if my course is moved online?
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIAHE), a complaints scheme for students in England and Wales, says if a university is offering ‘different but broadly equivalent teaching and assessment opportunities’, a refund is unlikely.
But if universities are offering fewer lecturers or the quality is not as expected, they may be liable to repay some fees.
This could particularly apply to degrees involving practical skills, such as chemistry, according to Boz Michalowska Howells, head of product safety and consumer law at law firm Leigh Day.
If a laboratory isn’t in use, a university may reschedule. But if it does not, a refund may be due. Students should not expect a full refund and what they can claim depends on their circumstances.
If there is a particular facility – like a library – that has been closed, then they could find out what proportion of their fees are spent on it and ask for that figure to be returned
Some institutions are already offering compensation. Glasgow University has refunded all students living in its halls one month’s rent and given those in lockdown £50 for supplies.
I’m not paying £9k a year for virtual classes
Nine of the 12 hours of final year student Lucy Halliday teaching has been moved online
Final year student Lucy Halliday previously had 12 hours of teaching time a week, but nine of these are now online.
Her university, Northumbria, has also reduced the opening hours of the library and students cannot take books home.
And while staff do their best in online seminars and lectures, she finds it harder to focus staring at a screen.
Lucy, who lives with her parents in Washington, Tyne and Wear, is paying £9,250 a year for her sociology and criminology degree.
She believes her fees should be closer to those charged by the Open University at £3,096 a year for distance-learning courses.
Lucy, 21, says: ‘I don’t expect to pay nothing, but we shouldn’t be charged full fees this year when we are not getting access to all the facilities.’
A Northumbria University spokesman confirmed it had no plans to reduce fees, adding: ‘All universities have adjusted the way their programmes are delivered in response to Covid-19.’
How do you claim a refund?
First complain to the university. Ask your tutor or the student advice centre how the complaints process works.
Figures from finance website Save The Student show that a total £650,000 compensation was awarded to 1,635 people who complained about their university in 2017.
If you are refused a refund, go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (oiahe.org.uk).
To do this, students need a ‘completion of procedures’ letter from their university, sent when it reaches a final decision. Each case is assessed individually and can take more than six months.
If the OIAHE finds a complaint is ‘justified’ or ‘partly justified’ it will make a recommendation, which may include compensation.
If this fails, the student could try a small claims court for amounts of less than £10,000. Students north of the border should go to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (spso.org.uk).
Is it now too late to defer?
Universities are encouraged to be flexible, but it is up to them to decide if students can delay starting their course.
Policies on late deferrals will be stated in the contract students signed on accepting a place. Some charge 25 per cent of the first year’s fees if they leave in their first term.
Solicitor Gary Rycroft, a consumer law specialist, says they will almost certainly have to pay these fees if the clause is clear.
Anger: A sign in the window of a student accommodation block in Leeds where students are under lockdown
Can I move back home?
In Scotland, new legislation means students who signed tenancy agreements for purpose-built student accommodation before May 27 only have to give seven days’ notice before moving out and will not be liable for rent thereafter. Those who signed later must give 28 days’ notice.
In England and Wales there is no such rule but some institutions, such as the University of Greenwich in London, have introduced break clauses in contracts in case all courses are moved online.
Citizens Advice says students in halls may be able to argue that their agreement has been ‘frustrated’ if this happens.
Private landlords, though, can charge rent until the contract ends. And those with joint tenancies may be liable for their housemates’ share if they stop paying rent.
What about my student loan?
Students must inform their finance provider if they move home to study because those who live away from home during term time are entitled to a larger loan.
Those from England can update information about their circumstances through their Student Loans Company (SLC) account or by calling 0300 100 0607.
People who planned to study abroad, but are learning online, should also do this. If finance providers aren’t informed, students may end up facing big bills for the money they were overpaid.
Welsh students should call Student Finance Wales on 0300 200 4050. Those in Scotland will not see their finance change if they live at home.
Don’t miss out on extra help
Families had to provide the SLC with information about their household income from the financial year 2018/19.
If the pandemic means this year’s income will be smaller than expected, students may be entitled to a larger loan. In England your household income must have dropped by at least 15 per cent.
The drop must take you into one of the lower income brackets set by the provider if you live in Scotland.
And Welsh students’ household income also needs to have fallen by 15 per cent, but they are more likely to receive a larger grant and a smaller loan.
To apply for more money ask the finance provider for a current year income assessment. If your household income ends up being higher than estimated, you may have to repay some of the money.