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A Scottish University Wants to Give Refunds to Students Who Fail

It sounds like a better deal for students, but really it's about using them as cash cows.

by Liam Turbett
Jan 30 2015, 5:25pm

A student protest against fees in London last year. Photo by Adam Barnett

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

What do four years at university and cheap electrical appliances have in common? "Not a lot" would usually be the answer, but if the principal at a Scottish university gets his way, you might soon be able to obtain a money-back guarantee on both. Outlining radical plans on Wednesday, Professor Craig Mahoney of the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) said he believed that if students fail their degree course, they should entitled to a rebate on their tuition fees. UWS is already looking at putting this in place, and if successfully implemented, it would amount to one of the most drastic shake-ups of the student-finance system since tuition fees were introduced.

Delivering a speech at an event in the House of Commons—a venue more accustomed speeches about to hiking up fees than handing out refunds—Mahoney explained that if students are accepted into the university on the basis that they'll succeed, and then fail despite having, "attended and participated in all the support and development opportunities we offer," the university is considering processing a refund on their tuition fees.

On the face of it, this seems fair enough—it must be pretty galling to fork out tens of thousands on tuition fees and then have nothing to show for it except piles of half-assed essays, novelty Guinness hats, and letters from Student Finance. While Scottish students aren't subject to fees and are unlikely to be anytime soon, overseas students and those from other parts of the UK pay between £7,000 [$10,500] and £10,000 [$15,000] for each year of their studies at UWS. I don't know about you, but if flunking my finals and getting a dreaded Fail (No Award) was going to be soothed by a £30,000 [$45,000] check from the university, it would be something worth considering.

It seems that UWS hasn't been overcome by a fit of altruism, however. This proposal doesn't give power back to students in any real sense. Instead, their proposals are all about increasing the university's attractiveness to lucrative foreign students, or "customers," as Mahoney puts it.

Despite his assurance that "this isn't all about monetization of higher education," he also said the UK's publicly funded universities need to "become more commercially sensitive and begin to act more like private industry... to allow us to remain competitive across the globe." Which sounds exactly like thing thing he said it "isn't about."

Student groups have slammed the refund proposal as a "marketing gimmick." I spoke to Gary Paterson, community campaigns convenor at NUS Scotland about it. He drew comparison between the policy and "no-win, no-fee" legal firms. "On the face of it, the proposals look rather friendly and an obvious recruitment hook. But this 'Claims Direct' style recruitment is the latest in a string of marketing ploys that focuses on students as cash cows. Students resent the idea that education is a product."

Jade McCarroll, in the final term of a social sciences degree at UWS, was similarly scathing, raising fears that fee refunds could compromise academic integrity at the university. "I think it's in keeping with the whole idea of student satisfaction in the provider/customer sense, and it will put pressure on staff to pass as many students as possible. Although it might be tempting for anyone who has spent that amount of money to take this up, we need to be asking why our university is treating rest of UK and overseas students as cash cows in the first place."

That's the burning issue here—are universities simply degree factories churning out graduates with employment-ready 2:1s or do they serve a deeper role in which society values education for its own sake? And can a balance be struck between these visions? Although this is a conflict which has been raging for decades, the UWS "no degree no fee" concept has brought it sharply into focus. And it's thrown another open question into the mix: If degrees are just products you pick off a shelf—and if success and failure is emphasized and quantified in a marketable way—who's to blame if you fail because you spent three years cultivating a case of liver cirrhosis? At what point do lecturers become liable for students not passing a particular class? In some cases, blaming universities would be like putting a metal dish in your microwave, watching it blow up, and blaming the manufacturer.

Although UWS have stated the move is about meeting the "needs and desires" of their students, Jack Douglas, the Student President at the university, revealed that there hasn't been any consultation on it yet, with the Student Association unaware of the proposal prior to this week's speech. Douglas said that offering a cash incentive to fail would do little to help students struggling with their degrees, and warned against the creation of a "two tier" system in which academics would, potentially, be under less commercial pressure to pass state-funded Scottish students. "Any investment should be used to make sure people don't drop out in the first place and to help them get their degree, not as a ploy to get more students in," he said.

The university Principal's speech in London this week was billed as being one of "Dangerous Ideas." The reaction from student bodies suggests that they at least agree on the "dangerous" part, although probably for different reasons.

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