As the beginning – or what was supposed to be the beginning – of Summer term approaches, it’s safe to say that we’re not going to be getting exactly the kind of educational experience. we were expecting. What it looks like depends on the department, but we’ll all be moving to online teaching: pre-recorded lectures, virtual seminars, and online resources.
But should online teaching be treated as the same product, and therefore be given the same price, as physical teaching? Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford, certainly doesn’t think so: speaking to The Express, he posited that online teaching needs to be seen as “a different educational experience”, and that “as such it will need a separate pricing structure” to face-to-face classes. Professor Alan Smithers agrees that in order for their fee structure to be both fair to students and attractive to them, UK universities may need to reduce charges to Summer term’s tuition.
I can’t help but agree with them. Whether or not the university either reimburses students or reduces the fees for online teaching is, of course, dependent on what students will be getting. This is not simply dependent on the number of contact hours we receive, but on the quality of teaching being delivered, which remains to be seen.
However, in order to evaluate the actual costs on online teaching, we need to think about what our fees are theoretically paying for. Many of the physical costs of university – such as maintaining libraries and lecture theatres – will not be met in the Summer term. As such, where are our full fees going?
On the other hand, tutors and lecturers still deserve full pay. If the university were to reduce our fees at the expense of staff pay, then this would not only be unfair to staff, but it would lead to more strikes, and as such further lower the value of our fees. May I suggest that many universities can afford to accept lower fees, but that the financial damage can be mitigated by the universities’ VCs and other senior staff accepting pay cuts.
By no means do I have all the answers, and I am aware that there is no solution that works for everyone. But this question has got me thinking about the contact hours we lost as a result of the UCU strikes, and whether the university can use this withheld pay to support those most affected by Covid-19. The VC has promised to put this money towards “additional learning opportunities” and “initiatives that benefit all students”, which we haven’t seen yet. Perhaps the university could put some of this money into supporting reduced fees for the Summer term: something that would be beneficial and fair for students, who will be paying for far more than thay will be getting.
My opinion is simply that we should not be paying the full fees for Summer term’s online tuition, as it is by no means the same product as physical teaching. I hope that the university will recognise this, and offer compensation and support more substantial than, say, free graduation gowns after strikes. Perhaps the executives of UK universities, York included, could learn a thing or two from Australian universities such as La Trobe University, whose executives are accepting a pay cut to confront the coronavirus-related loss of revenue.