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Higher education students press for refunds and discounts during COVID-19

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A significant number of North American students want refunds for their disrupted spring semester, with some student groups taking legal action
  • Some US colleges are offering tuition reductions and/or additional financial supports
  • In Canada, some major universities aren’t prepared to reduce tuition, despite calls from the nation-wide student federation – in South Korea, the situation is similar
  • In the UK, the majority of working students say they need additional financial aid because their work and studies have been so disrupted by COVID-19 and consequent public health restrictions

Educators the world over are facing unprecedented challenges and uncertainty about how they will attract and retain students for the coming academic year. COVID-19 continues to be an unpredictable wrecking ball for enrolment planning, and the only certainties are that (1) institutions need to maintain enrolments as much as possible, and (2) students want to keep progressing in their education somehow. The question is, how will it happen in September, and in the subsequent months? Online only? Online mostly? And what about tuition?

Students’ and educators’ perspectives can be very different

In the midst of all this, tuition is much on the minds of both students and educators, but how much (or if) fees should change is a matter of some debate. On the one hand, some students aren’t happy about the online experience they’ve received so far and don’t feel they should be paying the same tuition for remote learning as they would if they were attending in-person classes on campus. On the other hand, institutions are having to invest more than ever in remote and online learning models. Their costs aren’t necessarily going down in the way that students may be perceiving them to be.

This mismatch in expectations is at the root of student dissatisfaction at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. The university has announced a 3% tuition increase for the upcoming year, and students are “angry and frustrated,” according to Erica Seelemann, vice-president academic and external for the Dalhousie Student Union. She argues,

“Students have said that without access to the facilities, without access to the resources that they’re used to, they don’t want to pay the same tuition. They don’t have the same learning experience, so they shouldn’t have to pay the same fees.”

Dalhousie says the tuition hike is entirely justified. Deep Saini, president and vice-chancellor at Dalhousie, responded to students’ complaints, saying:

“Annual tuition increases are necessary to maintain the high quality of our academic programming — this was true before the COVID-19 pandemic and is even more apparent today as we work to ensure your academic experience this fall is delivered to the highest standards. Given the investments needed in student support and online instruction, as well as to help manage the significant financial impacts of this current pandemic, Dalhousie will be implementing the full 3% increase for this upcoming year.”

More broadly, the Canadian Federation of Students has called on universities across the country to reduce tuition fees, citing the switch to online learning as well as the disruption many students are facing in terms of finding jobs to pay for their schooling. But some of Canada’s largest universities – such as the University of British Colombia (UBC) and the University of Toronto – aren’t heeding the call.

Matthew Ramsey, UBC’s director of university affairs, says that the university won’t be budging on tuition because students “still have the ability to conclude their coursework, take exams and receive grades for the courses in which they enrolled.” He told Canada’s National Post newspaper that UBC faculty and staff were committed to providing the same quality of education that students would receive outside of COVID-19.

Tuition deals in the US

In contrast to these Canadian examples, in the US, some colleges – such as the University of Nebraska, Albion College, Ohio Wesleyan University – are reducing or freezing tuition in light of the crisis, whether across the board or for lower-income groups. Others are enacting pandemic-specific tuition breaks; one example is the University of Maine system, which is offering “in-state” tuition rates to students in other states whose college closed during COVID-19. Meanwhile Thomas University, in Georgia, is giving people who have lost jobs during the pandemic a 30% tuition discount.

Donald Heller, vice president for operations and former provost at the University of San Francisco, told Inside Higher Ed that,

“The concern about enrolments this fall is unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. For the recession in 2008, people expected, if there was going to be an impact, for it to be much more gradual than the kind of projections that we’re seeing for this fall.”

Going to court

The price-sensitivity and pandemic-related anxiety of students is revealed in the lawsuits US students have filed against more than 25 universities. The premise of these lawsuits is that campus shutdowns diminished the quality of education students received in the spring and therefore that students should be offered tuition refunds for the part of their term that was online.

In South Korea, a survey conducted by the National University Student Council Network (Univnet) among more than 20,000 students at over 200 universities found that 99% of respondents wanted refunds for the past semester, with the most cited reason being “remote classes are not up to par.” More than half of respondents wanted half of their tuition refunded while less than 10% thought they should receive full refunds. The remainder thought refunds of 20% to 30% were in order.

There is now a petition filed by South Korean students with their country’s Constitutional Court to make it legally binding that students be charged less “in cases where universities fail to provide educational services to a level corresponding to the amount of tuition paid.” Students launched the petition when the government said that they could not force universities to offer fee reductions due to cancelled in-person classes because there was no legal basis for such a move. Students say that the online education they’ve received so far has been marked by inadequate communication with professors, technical difficulties, an absence of lab classes, and generally sub-par instruction. For their part, universities note that a tuition freeze that has been in force for the past several years leaves them in no financial position to be able to offer tuition reductions now. As in the US (and everywhere else), South Korean universities also face new costs related to COVID-19.

Meanwhile in the UK, a survey of 10,000 higher and further education students by the National of Students (NUS) found that 85% of “working students” say they require more financial aid because COVID-19 restrictions have caused them to lose their jobs. The NUS wants students whose lives and studies have been adversely affected to receive refunds for the academic year or be allowed to retake their courses for free.

Many decisions still to be made

There is no doubt that many universities and schools are facing severe pandemic-related financial challenges. But this is happening even as students are expressing concerns about continuing online at current tuition rates or indicating that their ability to pay has been compromised by the financial downturn. A Chronicle of Higher Education survey among more than 1,100 American high school seniors in April found that:

  • “40% of students had not yet made a [tuition] deposit, and the vast majority were uncertain they could stay with their first choice.
  • 12% of all students who had made a deposit reported they’d already changed their plans and decided not to enrol full time at a 4-year college in the fall.
  • 52% of students reported that a parent or guardian had lost his or her job, been laid off, or furloughed.
  • 67% of student would expect to pay much less in tuition and fees for online learning options if campus could not be reopened in the fall.”

The situation is of course similar for many international students, especially for those who were planning to begin studies this year and have not yet travelled to their study destinations. For many of those students, decisions around attendance or deferral this year will yet revolve around the plans of their host institutions regarding in-person or online instruction, as well as shifting travel restrictions, the re-opening of visa processing services, and the availability of international flights.

COVID-19, without doubt, presents the most serious challenge facing the global higher education sector in modern history. Not only will many educators have to switch – in part or in whole – to online provision while some students at least are reluctant to shift to online studies, but they are also being pressured by changing price sensitivities and expectations around tuition rates for the coming year.

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