Universities not returning to face-to-face teaching should not charge full fees, education secretary says

Universities that do not return to face-to-face teaching this coming academic year should not be charging full fees, the education secretary has told Sky News.

Speaking to Kay Burley, Gavin Williamson said: “I think if universities are not delivering what students expect, then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees.”

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Image: Students at Archbishop Blanch School in Liverpool, receive their A-Level results. Picture date: Tuesday August 10, 2021.

He said the government has made it “clear” that “all universities can move back to face-to-face teaching”.

“That’s what we want to see,” Mr Williamson added.


Pressed on what the government could do if some institutions do not go back to in-person lectures and seminars, the education secretary acknowledged that universities were “autonomous”.

But he stressed: “Our direction is clear and we do expect all universities, unless there’s unprecedented reasons, to be moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons and lectures face-to-face.”

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Mr Williamson said ministers would give the Office for Students – the independent regulator of higher education in England – “all the power and all the backing” in pursuing universities “that aren’t delivering enough for students that are paying their fees”.

Guidance issued by the Department for Education with regards to universities states: “As higher education providers are autonomous institutions, they should identify and put in place appropriate plans, in line with this guidance and any other relevant government guidance, based on their individual circumstances.

“In accordance with the OfS guidance, providers should communicate clearly to their students on what they can expect from planned teaching and learning.

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“This should include different scenarios; one based on the current circumstances, and one based on changes that would be made in response to changing health advice, so that they are able to make informed choices.”

Labour’s shadow schools minister Peter Kyle said the government is to blame for the situation the education secretary is railing against.

“Up until now the reason why there’s been such chaos and ambiguity about the way things are taught in universities is because of the policies of Gavin Williamson,” he told Kay Burley.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty going into this term. If class sizes and the way that classes are taught in universities is disrupted going into the autumn because of government policy, then if there is a financial cost to universities then Gavin Williamson should be stumping up for it.”

Mr Kyle said he agreed that if a student had a “poor learning experience” they should not have to pay full fees, but added there should not be an assumption that online learning is automatically worse than face-to-face teaching.

“We need to make sure that the overall standard of teaching in universities, as in any other institution of education, is of a high quality. That’s the issue,” he added.

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“Where and how that’s delivered actually isn’t the fundamental question. It’s the quality of the education they’re getting.”

The education secretary’s comments come on the day hundreds of thousands of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their A-level results, with more A and A* grades this year than ever before.

More than two in five sixth formers (44.8%) were awarded A or A* grades this year, which is up 6.3% on last year’s 38.5%.

Mr Williamson said employers “can have real confidence” in the grades that will be awarded, with a “rigorous system of grading and awarding” in place.

“People have been awarded this grade on the basis of evidence,” he continued.

“We took a difficult decision, and that decision was that children were to be assessed on what they had been taught. We have seen various amounts of disruption around the country and children’s experiences have been different.

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“But still, you have a very clear grading system, you still see children who are achieving A*s, As, Bs, Cs, have really achieved so very, very much, and I think employers can have real confidence in the grades that they get. Let’s not forget this is an unprecedented year.”

Thousands of students had their results downgraded last summer when a controversial algorithm was used, but this was scrapped and teacher assessed grades used instead.

This year, schools and colleges in England provided samples of student work to exam boards, as well as evidence used to determine the grades for the students selected.

Mr Williamson said that while the government will consult on a contingency plan “largely based around” teacher-assessed grades for next year, he hopes exams will be able to be held as normal.

He said: “We very much hope that we will be moving to a system of where we are able to move into the more normal pattern of examinations from next year, but always conscious that [in] this pandemic, we have not always been able to predict the course of it, it has continuously changed, and it’s absolutely right that we have contingencies there, as we always do.”

Asked if he was ruling out having to scrap exams once again, the education secretary replied: “We are very much planning to move back to examinations as a form of assessment, but we always have to have a contingency plan in place, and that’s why we will be consulting in the next academic year on those plans.”