The pandemic has disrupted everyone’s lives and, in many situations, has caused me to dispense advice that consumers are entitled to refunds for the likes of cancelled holidays and flights. This week, many students have contacted me about their rights, with most asking me “do I have to pay my full tuition fees even though the university has moved to online teaching only and therefore not providing me with the full experience that I paid for?”
Here is what you need to know:
Am I entitled to a refund of my tuition fees?
This is not a straightforward question and there is certainly not an answer that ‘fits all’. It therefore depends on the individual university, and the steps it has taken to continue to deliver the courses students enrolled into.
Most universities have moved to delivering tuition online, either all or part of the time. Inevitably, this practice will increase. To assess your rights to a refund (or a partial refund), you must carry out a comparison of: i) the tuition, and therefore the service you would have received in normal times, as opposed to ii) the tuition and service you are receiving now. Just because your course is being delivered in a different format and via different method, it does not necessarily mean that you are entitled to a refund/partial refund. To be entitled to a refund/partial refund, you have to be able to conclude that the quality and quantity of the teaching is below that which you originally expected and signed up for. By way of example:
If you were timetabled to attend eight lectures and three tutorials per week, pre-pandemic, and now during the pandemic period your university is still providing this, but online, the overall quality and quantity is unlikely to have declined sufficiently to warrant a refund/partial refund.
If you are a science student and you were timetabled to attend six lectures and three practical sessions in a lab, pre-pandemic, and now during the pandemic period the university is conducting the lectures and tutorials online, but has cut the lab work, you will, in my view, be entitled to a ‘reduction’ in your tuition fees. However, if the university says that the lab work will simply be postponed until a later date, you will not be entitled to a refund.
If you were timetabled to attend eight lectures and three tutorials per week, pre-pandemic, and now during the pandemic period your university is delivering ‘ad hoc’ online sessions when it can, you will definitely be entitled to a refund/partial refund.
My overall view is that short of a university closing its doors and switching off all teaching, it is highly unlikely that any students will be entitled to a full refund. However, in many of the circumstances I have heard about, students will be entitled to a partial refund.
What is the legal basis for a refund/fee reduction?
The Consumer Rights Act 2015 (“the CRA”) covers the purchase of goods or services by a consumer. Students who enter into a contractual relationship with universities to purchase a service, namely a course and tuition, are consumers; The CRA therefore applies.
Consumers are entitled to ‘get what it says on the tin’ when entering a contract. This means that the university must deliver the quality and quantity of teaching and do all things that the average student would need to pass the course, as has been promised to the student within the information provided about the course (both in written and verbal format). If the university cannot do this (due to the pandemic), section 56 of the CRA provides a right to a reduction in fees.
56 Right to price reduction
(1)The right to a price reduction is the right to require the trader to reduce the price to the consumer by an appropriate amount (including the right to receive a refund for anything already paid above the reduced amount).
(2)The amount of the reduction may, where appropriate, be the full amount of the price.
(3)A consumer who has that right and the right to require repeat performance is only entitled to a price reduction in one of these situations—
(a)because of section 55(3) the consumer cannot require repeat performance; or
(b)the consumer has required repeat performance, but the trader is in breach of the requirement of section 55(2)(a) to do it within a reasonable time and without significant inconvenience to the consumer.
(4)A refund under this section must be given without undue delay, and in any event within 14 days beginning with the day on which the trader agrees that the consumer is entitled to a refund.
(5)The trader must give the refund using the same means of payment as the consumer used to pay for the service, unless the consumer expressly agrees otherwise.
(6)The trader must not impose any fee on the consumer in respect of the refund.
It is also worth asking the university what savings it is making during the pandemic (due to furlough, reduced services, reduced energy costs etc.), and enquiring if such savings will be passed on to the students.
What if the university says no to a refund/fee reduction?
You can go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education – it is a kind of ombudsman and will review your complaint. If it finds in your favour, in some cases it may order a refund of some of your fees.
Its website is clear that a change in the teaching delivery and/or style alone is not grounds for you to get your money back. It states:
“If your provider has offered you different but broadly equivalent teaching and assessment opportunities in a way that you could access, it is not likely that you will get a fee refund for that,”
But it has also warned universities that they cannot have clauses in their contracts with students that allow them to change significant aspects of courses.
If you decide to complain to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, make sure that you fully explain what teaching the university is delivering to you, and how this differs to what you signed up to.
If this route fails, you can lodge a claim in the County Court (Small Claims Court if your claim is worth less than £10,000). This step should not be taken lightly however and, before issuing proceedings, you should be sure that you have a strong case.