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Group of postgraduate students call for fee refunds following campus shutdown

 Postgraduate petitioners sent a letter to LSE administration on 9 April, asking them to reconsider their summer term fees in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

Two masters students deemed it time to speak up about the changed value of their LSE experience when the school shut its doors for the year in late March. Their letter was sent two weeks after students across the country called for tuition fee refunds from their respective universities following mass campus closures. The two drafters’ appeal received 271 signatures from other master’s students, who likewise felt the need to clarify the terms of fees payment. 

“As master’s students with just one year to benefit from their time at LSE, we feel that the terms upon which we agreed to pay our tuition fees have changed fundamentally on both the part of the School and of the student,” reads part of the petition.

“Master’s students deserve a renegotiation of our fees as we are losing out on the whole of our third semester which would have comprised another 5 months of opportunities,” said Freya Abbott, one of the drafters. “[Fourteen-thousand pounds]  a year for UK/EU students and £22,000 for international students is no longer warranted after moving the course to distance learning online. It seems unjust to change the terms of the degree and not reconsider the costs, especially as so many students are facing financial insecurity now.”

The letter advocates for an adjustment of fees that better aligns with the new online format. “With the payment of the Summer Term fees pending, we believe that they should be suspended and refunded for those who have already paid, or at the least reconsidered in line with fees paid for a distance learning course,” wrote the drafters in the letter. 

Nonetheless, drafters were hopeful that LSE administrators would understand their rationale. “We believe that LSE will renegotiate the terms of our degrees as they have fundamentally changed the way they provide our education,” said Abbott. “So many provisions have been made by the government, businesses, and other big institutions to show solidarity and how now we must all change business as usual to accommodate everyone’s circumstances. Many students are facing severe financial difficulties which are exacerbated by the looming obligation of the third installment of fees; providing relief from this payment could significantly ease the financial situation of many students.” 

An LSE spokesperson, in response to a question on transparency of summer term payments, reiterated the school’s commitment to teaching and supporting students during this time. 

“We have gone to great lengths to ensure the continuity of education for all students during this time,” reads the statement. “Although the physical campus is closed, teaching, and learning has continued with classes, lectures, office hours, and other sessions running during the last two weeks of term, and a range of measures put in place to prevent students from being disadvantaged. This will continue into Summer Term, with students given opportunities to engage with their learning community and an expectation that they take part in revision activity.”

However, the petition outlines disappointing variation in the level of teaching since the school shutdown, and understandably so: teachers are also faced with changeable and challenging circumstances, and students are more than aware of this. 

“In some departments there has been little-to-no seminar time, while others have uploaded lectures from past years in lieu of up-to-date teaching,” the petition reads. “One of the reasons we, as students, were willing to pay this price is due to the opportunities this university provides such as; working directly with both practitioners and academics, and lecture series and workshops with renowned specialists. These elements and the opportunities they afford simply cannot be moved online.”

“We know that the levels of teaching have dropped,” said Abbott. “While we do not hold lecturers accountable for this as this is a difficult time for all, and everyone is trying their best given the challenges we are all facing, we would appreciate some acknowledgement of this from LSE itself.”

“Many of the teaching staff have to continue to work full time whilst also fulfilling often full-time caring responsibilities for family members and other dependents, so while we understand the constraints of staff and very much empathise with these strains, it is simply unreasonable for the School to expect that teaching will continue as normal, and for us to continue to pay for services in line with this,” said Amy Edwards, the second drafter. 

The petition also explained concerns over missing out on the promise of post-Easter break career, knowledge and skill-building, and networking opportunities. 

“For many departments, the Summer Term was anticipated as the key period to make use of the school’s resources, services, and connections, including extensive ranges of practice-based activities planned post-Easter break,” the document reads. “With the entirety of this term’s programme of events cancelled, we feel the online classes provided thus far constitute only a small part of the educational experience anticipated at LSE. Access to the facilities we had paid to benefit from is also now extremely limited.”

Drafters also wrote that the worrisome economic situation both domestically and globally has impacted a number of students’ plans to pay their fees and living expenses.

“For many international students, the value of student loans and savings that are held in their national currencies have drastically fallen compared to the pound, resulting in substantial real increases in living and tuition costs,” the petition reads. “This loss of income is particularly acute for students, as work in the hospitality sector, the most popular for students in need of flexible work, cannot be done from home. While many students face a complete loss of earnings and/or travel to their home country, the already high cost of living in London remains the same.“

The LSE spokesperson pointed to LSE’s new COVID-19 hardship fund and stable scholarship amounts when asked about the scope of financial support the school plans to provide during this time.

“LSE’s Financial Support Office is providing support to current students who are experiencing financial hardship as a result of COVID-19,” they said. “We are making awards to students through the LSE hardship fund, details of which can be found here. We have also ensured that existing scholarship holders will receive the full amount of their Summer Term stipend, working with the Finance Division and Western Union to make these payments through BACS.”

Students are also eligible to apply for funds to the SU’s Hardship Fund. However, Edwards claimed that she was denied help from the SU’s fund due to the strain of current demand volume, and they did not perceive her to be as much in need as other students who will depend on the Fund’s monthly stipends. Edwards and nine other postgrads were not aware of the separate COVID-19 Hardship Fund prior to being interviewed. In spite of this, Edwards and Abbott remain concerned about their third tuition instalments. 

 “This specifically does not cover fees, which are the biggest problem,” said Edwards. “We know that the hardship fund exists, but as the university knows, it cannot come anywhere close to assisting every student facing financial difficulty with regards to the upcoming payment of fees.”

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