By Brian Hipkin, CEO & Founder at ReFRAME HE Consultancy Ltd

The HE sector has been holding its collective breath for some weeks now as it waited for the Government’s response to the £2.5bn bailout request put forward by UUK. During this time demands from Student Unions for refunds of fees and freedom from housing contracts have grown. The online petition for tuition fee refunds now has over 330,000 signatures.

At least now we know. No fees reduction for online studying, no more unconditional offers, no bailout for Universities in England and a system of number control that is likely to fail in its objective.

The loss of part time work for students and reduction in income for their families have only served to strengthen the call for more and more directed hardship funds from Universities.

Universities are now starting to experience the type of financial uncertainty that is a fact of life for many of their students.

There is to be no new money. Tuition fee payments to Universities that are normally spread out over three terms at the rate of 25%,25% and 50% will have the second 25% front loaded to make the payments for 2020/21- 50%, 0%, 50%. Whilst there is no impact on students there are very real pressures created for Universities even if the financial cash flow ones are temporally eased in the very short term.

The actual level of tuition fees due to a HEI is based on the number of enrolled students in September. Bringing the focus back to the issue of how many UK and EU students will actually turn up to be counted this September? International Students both new and returning bring tuition fee income with them. Even without Covid-19 there were going to be problems. Post Brexit the number of EU students coming to the UK was always going to be problematic, we are also expecting the lowest number of UK 18-year olds for years to be arriving.

One consequence of the bringing forward of 25% of tuition fee income is that it will force Universities to open, in some form this September, as that will be the counting point for the year’s tuition fees. The impact on January 2021 starts is as yet unknown. In normal times many Universities have a healthy January start cohort albeit largely International. There will need to be a regrowth of affordable international air travel, easing of English language tests and visa processes, for January 2021 to be a rescue point for International Student recruitment.

There is still uncertainty in the sector about the form any September restart will take. However, some things are starting to emerge.  A September rather than November 2020 or January 2021 start is seeming a firmer bet. Some science, engineering, medicine and health related courses look likely to start on campus, if social distancing can be achieved. Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences students will probably have to stay in their bedrooms for the foreseeable future.

One thing is certain, you will still have to pay your £9K tuition fee regardless of whether you are back on campus or still at home. Very clearly the debate about value for money has now swung from your earning power to the quality of your online provision. The Universities minister sees that payment of full tuition fees can only be justified if online courses are good quality, fit for purpose and help students progress towards their qualification.

The question immediately arises: how are students new to HE, never been taught at UG level online before, able to make these judgements? Universities will be held to account for practices that both they and their students have never experienced before.