University strikes: yes, students should get compensation – but not in the form of monetary payment

Some students, many of who pay up to £9,250 in tuition fees a year, are demanding tuition fee refunds for the university strikes that are currently taking place. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) are on strike for eight days between November 25 and December 4.

Like the last strikes in 2018, this latest strike in some institutions is about pensions. But it’s also about pay, equality, casualisation and workloads within higher education.

Despite the marketisation of the higher education sector, the value of a student’s university experience is something that cannot be easily quantified in monetary terms. The primary concern of which should be good quality education. And this amounts to much more than a group of lecturers not being present at work for a week. Nevertheless, as customer aware students raise their concerns, it’s worth thinking about this refund request properly.

The case for why

As an economist, but also as an educator, I believe students should get a refund – but not in the form of monetary payments. I’ll talk you through why.

Busting the myth that university education is based on lectures and seminars, a fully rounded university experience is about much more than contact time. Indeed, students today are taught in many different ways. Yes there are seminars and lectures, but also digital and self-paced training.

Beyond the classroom, universities also offer a much wider range of services. These include libraries, careers advice, student support services, well-being programmes and counselling. It also includes financial advice, English language and maths support, as well as bespoke support for students affected by learning difficulties or disabilities.

Equally important determinants of a good university education are the physical spaces – think classrooms, accommodation, recreational areas, and sports facilities. And the social spaces – student societies, volunteering initiatives – as well as the staff and student academic community as a whole.

Student fees finance this whole apparatus, not just lectures. This includes the heating of buildings, water supply, carbon emission abatement and much more. While some lecturers will be on strike, and part of the student experience will be disrupted, it’s also true that universities will continue to run all other services.

Another important aspect to be considered is how contact time will be impacted for different degrees. For instance, students attending courses with a lot of teaching time will be deprived of lectures. But students on placements might only be marginally affected by the strike.

The nature of student fees

There’s also the fact that although some students (mostly internationals) face the cost of education upfront, many finance their university degree through government loans. When considering services sold against an upfront payment, it might make sense to claim for compensation if the service is suspended. But when universities receive student fees from government loans, the idea that students could claim for compensation against future repayments of a loan becomes more difficult to rationalise.

Many universities have taken the position that no refunds for lost teaching will be issued to students. Shutterstock/ Smart7

Further complicating the matter, is the fact that some students will never have to repay their university loan. Graduates are expected to make payments against their loans when their income exceeds a given threshold. But figures show that not all students will ever earn enough – or not consistently over the 30 years before the loan is written off.

From the end of 2018, the Office for National Statistics started to consider part of student loans as public spending. This decision takes into account that student debt will be written off in the future and implies that if students will not be repaying debt, the taxpayer will. So in theory, taxpayers could also rightfully claim compensation for the university strikes.

Ultimately though, computing the monetary value of compensation students could be entitled is far too complex. And it does not account for the fact that students will be affected by the strikes differently.

Different kind of compensation

I am fully supportive of the idea that students should see remedial actions for the disruption they are facing. But it’s important to emphasise that universities are charities. They do not maximise profits but re-invest any excess of revenue over costs on improvements of their facilities and recruitment of additional labour.

Since lecturers participating in strike actions will give up pay, universities will find themselves in the position of accumulating extra funds from unpaid wages. So here is an opportunity for students. These funds could be reinvested in interventions to improve student learning and teaching. This could include refurbishing classrooms, updating technology, investing in better mental health provision and so on.

There is another important advantage of this kind of compensation: since these extra funds are accrued locally, student representation and university management can negotiate how to allocate such funds on the basis of specific needs. And they could even take into consideration which groups of students will be most disrupted by the strike.

Many UK university lecturers are now on strike until December 4. During this time, many students will also stand in solidarity with their teachers. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that students are concerned about missing teaching time. From an economic perspective, fee refunds are not a consistent or fair option. And with the quality of their education at stake, students would not gain much from obtaining a fees refund – teaching enhancement claims are a better way.