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Class of ’20 wants a refund

Many university students are angry they've been charged full-price tuition fees for mostly online classes.

For many of us, it’s been a rough fifteen months. Few, however, would dispute that students have been hit particularly hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions. Schools have closed, exams cancelled, GCSE and A-Level results downgraded and education in general disrupted. Important social milestones, from graduations to proms, have also been ditched.

All of this matters. Education is one of the primary ways humans accumulate what economists call our ‘human capital’ - the skills and knowledge that we parlay into the jobs and wages most of us need to live, eat, pay bills and enjoy ourselves.

Researchers already know that kids who experience disrupted education tend to earn less money as adults. That can have all sorts of negative economic impacts, from poorer health outcomes to lower wellbeing to worse academic outcomes for their children. And all of these consequences tend to hit poorer kids harder than richer ones, because their families have less access to resources that could dull the impact of disrupted education, such as private tutors or the technology needed to effectively learn remotely.

Such costs feel particularly galling to many higher education students, because they are being personally billed for the education most regard as substandard. In England, tuition alone now costs £9,250 a year, more than treble the cost of a decade ago. Only a quarter of university students said they felt such fees were good value for money. Two in five said they wished they’d deferred for a year, gone to a different university or taken a different degree entirely. A quarter had considered dropping out completely - with the most commonly cited reason being that their mental health had taken a battering.

The logic behind charging Brits for higher education is that their degree will increase their lifetime earnings by more than enough to outweigh the initial cost, thus making it a sensible financial investment. But this implicit deal was already starting to fray before Covid hit, as the combo of rising fees and a saturated graduate jobs market made it harder for uni leavers to make good money. Although on average graduates in 2019 did still earn more than non-graduates (£34k vs £24k) the biggest financial gains were concentrated in students who went to particular (prestigious) universities, took particular (STEM-based) courses, and had particular (white, male, middle-class) identities.

Of course, money isn’t everything, and pre-pandemic prospective university students may have also placed value on some of the non-financial opportunities universities offer: the chance to meet new people and make new friends, a more supported and less high-pressured road towards ‘adulting’ (among other things, students can take out low-interest maintenance loans for living expenses and don’t pay council tax), or even just three years of hedonistic hell-raising at the student union bar. Of course, Covid restrictions have put a stopper in many of these aspects too, adding to the perception of many young people that university is simply no longer worth it.

Read our explainer on: educational institutions

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