What's happening with our money?

What’s happening with online learning and fee refunds?

With the rest of the semester being conducted online, students from around New Zealand, including from the University of Canterbury, are calling for partial refunds of their tuition fees.   

It is claimed that with learning now online, students are receiving an education much different to what they originally signed up for. They have lost the face-to-face interactions with lecturers, tutors, and students, that is essential to the university experience. Many classes are unable to be taught online as well — including essential practical sessions for those students studying science, engineering, and art and design subjects. Many students who are now having to study and work from home are unable to access the necessary equipment needed to help with their learning and assessments. New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations National President, Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, said “if students aren’t able to engage in the teaching that they paid for upfront then I think it’s really unfair for students to not get some rebate or compensation paid for by the institution.”  

Furthermore, many facilities are still inaccessible for the foreseeable future, and all usual university and UCSA events have been cancelled. It is clear the change in delivery could easily affect the quality of education being received.  

When reaching out to the students of UC for their feedback on online learning, many shared their concerns.  

Pippa said, “although at this point it is safest for the rest of the semester to be taught online, I do think some of us are really going to struggle with everything being online”. Florence has been diagnosed with ADHD, which means learning is already more difficult for her. She said, “it’s a lot easier to stay on task when I am in a lecture theatre surrounded by nothing else other than the learning … you can’t beat in-person learning. That’s what we are programmed to do”.  

A computer science student said he was struggling with his project, unable to access the university computers which have powerful graphic cards. He passed over his compliments to the teaching staff, however, who he said have been doing their best to help out. Aleshia has also been struggling with her projects. She said, “three-quarters of my papers involve group design projects which will be niggly to complete to a decent standard over Zoom”.  

With so many different degrees requiring different amounts of practical work and personal interaction, many questions remain unanswered.  

When it comes to call for refunds, Josie said that “if students are taking courses where they’re paying for use of labs and/or field trips, the cost of materials should at least be refunded”. She didn’t think anything else should be refunded, as said staff still need to be paid.   

Aleshia, however, is one of the students where most of her papers involve practical aspects. This means she pays greater tuition fees compared to other standard courses, based on the costs of materials the course uses such as 3D printers, wood, glues, and plastics. Because of this, Aleshia said “I 1000% think that some papers should be refunded. I’d be pretty sad if we didn’t get anything back seeing as I didn’t use a single piece of material but still paid for it all”. Alexandrea also commented that they should at least be refunded one quarter of their tuition fees as “the majority of us didn’t pay to do online distance learning”.  

Pippa agreed, saying that “I think that a portion of fees should be refunded as this money goes towards using the facilities in labs, and obviously the facilities that the student levy covets. Since we are unable to access these, I think at the end of the year we should get back how much we would’ve paid weekly to use the facilities. Understandably, on mass this may be hard to calculate but I feel it is most fair as some courses have a significantly greater cost than others”.  

Despite these concerns, Lynn McClelland, Executive Director of UC Student Services and Communications, stated that “UC is not planning any refunds for moving to online learning”.  

She said that, “the efforts and costs are actually higher right now as we implement new technologies, including online examinations”.  

UC is not dismissing financial concerns however. McClelland said “we don’t want any student to drop out of their studies due to financial concerns. We are encouraging them to talk to us if they’re facing difficulties”. UC had added additional hardship funds in recognition of this, and they advise contacting the UCSA Advocacy & Welfare team.  

In terms of refunding some portions of the Student’s Services Levy, UC has been meeting with the UCSA to listen to students’ concerns on this matter. McClelland said the feedback they’d received so far was that students are still accessing services normally conducted on campus, but online. For example, she said “the UC Health Centre and counselling is provided via online consultations, and the Recreation Centre has had over 10,000 participants with online classes, and our student care team are providing services over the phone or via Zoom. We are also diverting resources between levy-funded services to meet changing student needs, and in particular, we are working with more students who require support from our care, counselling, and welfare teams”.  

The call for refunds, however, is especially loud from the international students who pay hefty fees compared to domestic students.  

Euan is originally from Indonesia. He said “during pre-COVID circumstances, international student fees were justified by the desire to strive for a stellar education provided by the university and its facilities. However, this has been severely impacted with the lockdown that is in place”. He said that the decision for the university to continue the rest of the semester online was admirable, but that this has “unfortunately stripped the international students from a key element that rationalised their tuition fees: the physical experience of a university”.  

“We’re not just paying five figures because we desire a supreme education that no other university could possibly offer. As sappy as it sounds, we’re honestly here to experience a life in another environment that is likely to be better and safer than our own respective countries. Hence, remote learning deprives us from experiencing the education and life in a different country that we are promised with a huge amount of money”. 

Furthermore, he said “I’m a software engineering student, and I have been reliant on the university lab machines for as long as the day my studies started amping up, and required me to ditch my 2012 MacBook Pro which is plagued with battery drops and incredible lags worth of tragic and relatable memes”.  

In response to concerns from international students, McClelland said “around the globe, students’ experiences in a COVID-19 world are not what they expected. We are continuing to provide support services to these students, and delivering quality online learning. We look forward to welcoming them back on campus when we are able”.  

At the end of the day, none of us could have ever predicted we would be spending six weeks of 2020 in our homes, attempting to learn online. The only thing we can do now is to make the best of this situation. There is so much help available if we need it, you just have to reach out.  

By Samantha Mythen